What is Monte Alban?

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  • Written By: Dan Cavallari
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 25 September 2019
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Located on a mountain top west of Oaxaca City in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, Monte Alban is an archaeological site dating back to around 500 B.C. It is unknown who built the structures that sit atop the artificially flattened mountain top, but the Zapotecs or an earlier culture of the Olmecs are largely credited with beginning the construction of the site. Over the centuries, other peoples inhabited the site or used it for various rituals as well. Situated just over 6000 feet (approximately 1940m) above sea level, Monte Alban was a major city in the Oaxacan Valley and was one of the earliest cities in Mesoamerica.

Monte Alban features distinct architectural designs similar to other ancient cities in Mexico. The prominent archaeological ruins utilize terraces and steps and surround a central courtyard, known as the Main Plaza. Archaeologists believe that many of the building techniques were borrowed from other cities, such as Teotihuacan, an archaeological site hundreds of miles away, north of Mexico City. Monte Alban features many underground passageways, rooms and tombs, as well as drainage systems and water storage systems. The city may have housed over 35,000 people during its hey-day.


In the museum just outside the archaeological site, visitors can view the Danzantes, or Dancers, which are stone carvings discovered throughout Monte Alban. They depict men who are seemingly dancing, however, the hypothesis that the men are dancing was later dismissed. Many of these figures are experiencing various mutilation, torture, and even death. The contorted positions of the figures led early archaeologists to believe the figures were dancing. They are the oldest artifacts discovered at Monte Alban, and their meaning is still up for interpretation, though many archaeologists believe these figures represent the tortured prisoners from outlying cities. Indeed, many remnants of human bodies have been found on the site, some with holes drilled into the skulls. Some archaeologists believe the holes are evidence of early medical treatments, but others speculate it may have been a form of torture.

The easiest way to get to Monte Alban is to take a bus from Oaxaca City. Several tour companies offer bus service from the city up to the ruins, but be sure to research for a reputable company. Most bus companies charge for a round-trip ticket and will allow visitors two hours at the site, which is enough time to visit the museum and wander the grounds. The bus trip takes about twenty minutes to a half hour up the steep road out of Oaxaca; it is a long walk from town, so the buses are the preferred method of travel to and from the site.


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