Among the oldest city sites found in Mesoamerica is the enigmatic cultural center of Monte Albán, the ancient political hub of the Zapotec people. This remarkable cultural group, who during their reign were called Be’ena’a, or “The People” in the indigenous Zapotec language, ruled from around 700 BC–1521 AD. Monte Albán served as the hub of a loosely-knit alliance of several Zapotec groups that had been rivals up until around 2000 years prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
Monte Albán is a structural marvel in itself, resting atop and artificially leveled hilltop in Mexico’s Oaxaca Valley. The city rests between the confluence of the Rio Atomic and the Rio Salado rivers, and quickly became the economic anchor of the region, promoting trade and craftsmanship that may have attracted more than 30,000 residents at the height of its growth and political influence over the region.
However, what has remained among the site’s most famous—and curious—attractions are not just the building structures that were once the great city of Monte Albán, but also the famous carvings that adorn the site, known today as Danzantes.
The Danzantes are a remarkable collection of carved stone slabs that feature bas-relief art depicting humans in various striking poses. Their name (“Los Danzantes” in Spanish) means “the dancers,” in reference to the curious gestures and contortions many of the figures on the stone faces depict, which are reminiscent of dancers. This early interpretation of the nature of these images may have given rise to their name, but little else about the Danazntes suggests dancing or festivity; as a result, the meaning behind these images has remained an item of debate among archaeologists for decades.
One peculiar feature of many of the Danzantes bas-reliefs is the presence of facial hair in the form of long beards worn by many of the figures. Facial hair is not common among the indigenous peoples of the region, which makes the images all the more curious; could this mean that some of the Danzantes actually depict foreigners?
This may provide a clue to the meaning behind the images, since another problem with the “dancer” theory has to do with the fact that most of the Danzantes are also depicted nude. Dancers, whether male or female, would not have been depicted nude by the cultures of Central Mexico during this period, as it was considered disgraceful. However, nudity does appear in art from other locations in the region, generally in depictions of captives from warfare who have been stripped in humiliation, often prior to their execution. The fact that many of the Danzantes appear to be foreigners would make sense, particularly if these figures represent the captives of war.
Other peculiarities in the appearance of the Danzantes include the fact that their feet appear to be placed at vertical angles, which has led some to theorize that the movements represented by the posing of the figures could actually denote swimming, as proposed by Augustín Villagra in the 1939, within a report he produced for the International Congress of Americanists in Mexico City.
While it is true that certain art depicting the Danzantes does appear to imply curving lines and similar features that might represent water, the “swimmer” theory has its own problems. Some of the figures appear to possess genital mutilation, as well as the appearance of glyphs, scrolls, or perhaps even tattoos adjacent to the apparent emasculations. Some have interpreted this as possible evidence of shamanic practices, where “ecstatic emasculation” might have served some kind of ritual purpose with the characters, especially if they might represent priests. Further, the notion of emasculation could be consistent with the bearded depiction of some of the characters, which might convey accelerated aging after castration has occurred.
Altogether, the best theory appears to be that of prisoners, or perhaps even slain bodies lying on the ground; this would appear to reconcile most, if not all of the features associated with the Danzantes, from the mutilations and placement of the limbs, to the fact that the feet do not appear to convey that they stand on level ground.
In John F. Scott’s 1978 The Danzantes of Monte Albán, he noted the likelihood that the images depicted slain bodies:
The Danzantes have contorted and highly asymmetrical postures; their arms sprawl in front of their torsos or over their heads. Most significant are the leg positions, which usually avoid any suggestion of resting on a ground line; quite possibly the Danzantes should be seen as if lying on the ground. The position of the limbs, the frequent indication of closed eyes on the grimacing faces, and the horizontal placement of slabs with elongated figures, all indicate that they represent slain victims lying on their sides or backs.
However, if the images of the Danzantes actually do illustrate slain enemies, what message was this intended to convey about Monte Albán to those who came there at the height of the Zapotecs?
“This is the kind of propaganda that one associates with an emerging state that is fighting to take control over previously autonomous regions and wants to discourage resistance,” wrote Joyce Marcus, a Latin American archaeologist and professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
“Of the shared conventions in Mesoamerican iconography some of the most widespread are those depicting captives. Prisoners are displayed in humiliation: they are stripped naked and bound, and their posture is awkward. The captors, in contrast, are dressed in elegant regalia and are posed in rigid dignity. If a prisoner has been sacrificed, he is shown with his eyes closed and his mouth open, and in many instances with flowery scrolls, presumably representing blood, issuing from his wounds.”
It would indeed seem likely that this is the best explanation for the enigma that is the Danzantes imagery at Monte Albán. In any case, their name appears to be a misnomer, as they certainly don’t seem to be dancers. And yet, unraveling the significance of these strange and, at times, rather grisly images tells us much about the politics and practices of this region of the ancient world. Nonetheless, Monte Albán and its curious stone stelae is a place that–to the modern observer–is, and probably will remain quite mysterious.