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The Ruins of Monte Albán



The ball game is intense. The players, dressed in padded clothes for protection, dash up and down the court, skillfully moving the ball, using only their shoulders, knees, elbows and hips. Everyone in the city is watching, but the most intent spectators are the priests, who interpret the will of the Gods by the actions of the ball and the players. Finally, the game ends and the winners celebrate: they have brought prosperity to the region they represent. The losers, however, march off sadly—their loss has shown that the Gods are displeased with them and their city-state. The only remedy: the losing team must be sacrificed. The skull of the losing captain will form the core of the hard rubber ball that is used in the next game.


The ball game, called ollama or ulama, was only one aspect of the culture of the ancient Olmecs, whose civilization was a precursor to later Central Mexican cultures such as the Aztecs and the Maya. No one knows what happened to the Olmecs. This fierce Central Mexican tribe came to the rich valleys near present-day Oaxaca, where they founded a settlement whose name has been lost to history.


Around 500 B.C., some newcomers arrived in the region: the Zapotecs, who defeated or assimilated the descendents of the Olmecs, whose rich culture was then in decline. Together they leveled the top of a mountain and built a mighty city from which they could command three valleys. The Zapotecs named it Danibaan, or “Sacred Mountain.” They ruled their mountain fortress for centuries before falling into decline themselves. By the tenth century A.D. the site was almost entirely abandoned.


The Mixtec culture arrived in the fourteenth century, and set up nearby. They considered the ruins sacred, however, and did not occupy many of the larger structures. Instead, they used the area as a burial ground. The Mixtec referred to the ruins site as Sahandevul, “at the foot of the sky.” The Mixtec lived near the ruins until they were conquered by the Spanish, who named the site Monte Albán after a local nobleman.


One of the highlights of Monte Albán is the gallery of the dancers. Among the oldest of the archaeological treasures at Monte Albán, this one includes a series of relief carvings of naked figures in contorted positions. The carvings are definitely of Olmec origin, an intriguing memento left by the first culture to colonize Monte Albán. The exact meaning of the figures is not known, although it may be related to fertility or health.


Over 170 tombs are located at Monte Albán, most of which are attributed to the late-coming Mixtec culture. The most spectacular tomb is tomb seven, which contained more than 500 pieces of gold, silver and jade. Many of the relics from tomb seven are on display at the impressive on-site museum or in nearby Oaxaca.


Today’s ball players whine when they don’t get a trade they want or when they have to settle for a mere three million dollars per season. They should be happy that no one will be playing with their skulls next season!

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