Collection Description

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Culture Description

The Zapotec are the largest indigenous group in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, inhabiting the central valley, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the sierra region in the north, and the southern coastal mountain area called the Sierra de Miahuatlán. The Zapotec are primarily town-dwelling peasant farmers, practicing a mixture of subsistence and cash agriculture with some animal husbandry. The Zapotec are renowned for their commercial activities. They live in compact communities. Ritual co-parenthood (compadrazgo) forms an important part of Zapotec society. Most communities observe a "cargo system", in which all adult men serve terms of office without pay.


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Middle America and the Caribbean --Central Mexico



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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in the eHRAF collection and are referenced by author, date of publication, and eHRAF document number.

The NU44 Zapotec collection consists of fourteen documents, all in English, with a focus on the valley Zapotec of Oaxaca, and with special emphasis on the towns of Mitla, Teotitlán del Valle, Díaz Ordaz, San Miguel del Valle, San Sebastian Teitipac, and Talea de Castro. Good overviews of Zapotec ethnography are provided in Nader (1969, no. 1) and Whitecotton (1977, no. 2). Nader summarizes both Zapotec ethnography and the literature on the Zapotec as of the middle of the 1960s. Whitecotton provides information on prehistory (from 1500 BC), as well as history and ethnographic research in the area as of the 1960s and 1970s. Two works in the collection are primarily community studies, providing fairly complete ethnographic coverage on the communities investigated. Parsons (1936, no. 3), based on fieldwork in the 1930s, is a study of Mitla, while Taylor (1960, no. 11) is a study of Teotitlán del Valle dating to the 1950s. Mitla has received a good deal of attention from ethnologists and further information on the community may be found in Messer (1975, no. 18) and Williams (1979, no. 25). Control of water resources is an important aspect of land use in the Oaxaca valley. Downing's study (Downing 1974, no. 20) concentrates on a single community (Díaz Ordas) to show how water rights, water usage, and conflicts over water change during the annual cycle with changing water availability and demand. Zapotec ideas about illness and health are discussed in two documents in this collection. The most complete coverage is found in Messer (1975, no. 18), which also covers the classification and use of plants in Mitla. The report by O'Nell and Selby (1968, no. 15), discusses


, a debilitating folk illness characterized by depression, loss of appetite, etc., which the authors consider to be a culturally patterned reaction to psychological stress. Other ethnographic topics are: inheritance and its effects on social solidarity, in Downing (1979, no. 26); changes in women's roles and authority in production, ritual, and local politics from 1920-1989; the production and marketing of metates in Cook (1969, no. 28), and harmony ideology, with particular reference to justice and social control, in Nader (1990, no.31).

For more detailed information on the content of the individual works in this collection see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

Overview by

John Beierle

Alcade - town judge - use "LEGAL AND JUDICIAL PERSONNEL (693)"

Ayuntamiento , town councils - use "TOWNS (632)"

Benito Juarez - use "CHIEF EXECUTIVE (643)"

Birth spirits - use "SPIRITS AND GODS (776)"

Blessings - use "RITUAL (788)"

Cacique, political boss - use "STATUS, ROLE, AND PRESTIGE (554)"

Campesinos - peasants - use "CLASSES (565)"

Cargo system - use "LOCAL OFFICIALS (624)" and/or "CONGREGATIONS (794)"

Conical clan (ambilineal ramage) - use "KINDREDS AND RAMAGES (612)"

Curandero (a) - native healers - use "MEDICAL PERSONNEL (759)"

Demes - use "COMMUNITY STRUCTURE (621)" and/or "KINDREDS AND RAMAGES (612)"

Ejido - use "REAL PROPERTY (423)"

Encomienda system - use "SERFDOM AND PEONAGE (566)" and/or "REAL PROPERTY (423)" and/or "TAXATION AND PUBLIC INCOME (651)"

Fiestas - use "REST DAYS AND HOLIDAYS (527)" and/or "ORGANIZED CEREMONIAL (796)"

Fiscales - use "CONGREGATIONS (794)"

Governor - use "PROVINCES (635)"

Haciendas - use "REAL PROPERTY (423)"

Harmony, concept of - use "SOCIAL RELATIONSHIPS AND GROUPS (571)"

La Reforma - use "CULTURAL GOALS (185)"

Madrina - godmother - use "ARTIFICIAL KIN RELATIONSHIPS (608)"

Maldad -sorcery - use "SORCERY (754)"


Mayordomías - religious fiestas - use "ORGANIZED CEREMONIAL (796)" with "REST DAYS AND HOLIDAYS (527)"

Mayordomo - a sponsor for a religious holiday - use "CONGREGATIONS (794)" with "ORGANIZED CEREMONIAL (796)"

Monuments, archaeological - use "PREHISTORY (172)", and/or "MISCELLANEOUS STRUCTURES (349)"

Monuments, guardians of - use "ADMINISTRATIVE AGENCIES (647)"

Monuments - unspecified - use "MISCELLANEOUS STRUCTURES (349)"

Mozos - hired labor - use "LABOR SUPPLY AND EMPLOYMENT (464)"

Municipal governments (in general) - use "TOWNS (632)"

Ojo - witchcraft - use "SORCERY (754)"

Padrino - godgather - use "ARTIFICIAL KIN RELATIONSHIPS (608)"

Panela - unrefined brown sugar - use "CONDIMENTS (263)"

Porfirio Diaz - use "CHIEF EXECUTIVE (643)"

Posada - a three-day religious ceremony before Christmas - use "REST DAYS AND HOLIDAYS (527)" with "ORGANIZED CEREMONIAL (796)"

Principales - use "TOWNS (632)", with "STATUS, ROLE, AND PRESTIGE (554)"

Quelguetza (gozana, guzoni) - a type of highly formalized reciprocal giving - use "GIFT GIVING (431)" and/or "MUTUAL AID (476)" and/or "BORROWING AND LENDING (426)"

Repartimiento - use "LABOR RELATIONS (466)", and/or TAXATION AND PUBLIC INCOME (651)" and/or "SERFDOM AND PEONAGE (566)"

Síndico - advisor, legal counsel to town mayor - u se "LEGAL AND JUDICIAL PERSONNEL (693)", with "TOWNS (632)"

Tequios - obligatory communal work days - use "TAXATION AND PUBLIC INCOME (651)", with "LABOR SUPPLY AND EMPLOYMENT (464)"

Topiles - policemen - use "POLICE (625)", and/or "LEGAL AND JUDICIAL PERSONNEL (693)"

Varas -canes of office - use "PARAPHERNALIA (293)"

This culture summary is from the article "Zapotec" by Douglas P. Fry, in the Encyclopedia of World Cultures, Vol. 8, Middle America and Caribbean, James W. Dow and Robert Van Kemper, eds. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall &Co. 1995. The synopsis and indexing notes were written by John Beierle in October 2007. Population figures were updated in June 2008 with information from the Mexican census.

Indexing Notes by

John Beierle

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