The morning light was slowly changing and with it also the aura of the ancient site. The sun was reaching higher, hammering its piercing rays into every corner of the city and the sunlight spilled onto the Main Plaza.
I was slowly walking between crumbling rocks, yet escaping from their still cool shade. I admitted to myself that Monte Alban had already made a huge impression on me. I did not know that it could surprise me even more with anything else. And yet! Wandering around in the vicinity of Building L, at the southeastern edge of the city, I suddenly stumbled upon a strange procession of naked stone creatures of an anthropomorphic shape (see: Hancock 2016:153). They were all carved in relief on a large number of stone monuments, which looked like irregular stelas, some of which were leaning loosely against the wall of the pyramid (Ibid.:153). A strange appearance of the figures intrigued and terrified at once. I was just standing there stupefied while looking at the earliest examples of the so-called Danzantes, standing in front of me. Yet a lot of them were also seen haunting throughout the whole Main Plaza of the city and in the nearby Monte Alban Site Museum (“Monte Albán” 2019).
Who were the Danzantes?
A vast sophistication of the engineering methods applied, along with the large-scale astronomy built in the city’s layout, indicate that Monte Alban must have been constructed by equally advanced civilization (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). Who were they and where did they come from?
Some clues are provided by the mysterious elements I had just encountered at Monte Alban – the Danzantes (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). These “are a series of  iconic reliefs featuring strange, morbid, rubbery [and naked] characters that appear to be diseased [or] deformed. Their message, and purpose, is a complete mystery and they are one of the many encrypted messages scattered around the city” (Ibid.). Still their style, along with the physical appearance of depicted characters seem analogous to representations left by the foremost civilization of Mesoamerica, usually called the Olmecs but also known as the Proto-Mayans. Yet the latter name is not fully correct, as at a certain stage, they developed parallel to the Maya (see:).
The Olmecs and Monte Alban
Mysterious on their own, the Olmecs had inhabited the lowlands of south-central Mexico (the present-day coastline of Veracruz and Tabasco states) as early as in 2000 BC and left their homeland roughly around 500 BC, that is around the time of Monte Alban’s beginnings on the stage of Mesoamerican history.
Is it just a coincidence?
Actually, it is theorised that the Olmecs migrated south (for unknown reasons) and established their new city in the Oaxaca Valley (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Moreover, yet before Monte Alban was constructed, the Olmecs and the people of San Jose Mogote were involved in mutual trade, by means of which, the farming community developed later into the Zapotec civilisation, who later became credited with monumental architecture, calendrics and the first known form of writing (Ibid.). One slab in Danzantes‘ style was actually found paved in the corridor at San Jose Magote (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). The building where it was found is dated to between 750 BC and 500 BC, when the community of San Jose Magote was about to disappear (Ibid.). The representation of an anthropomorphic character is accompanied there by two glyphs depicted between its legs, meaning Earth (or Motion) and One (in relation to the first day of a 20-day cycle) (Ibid.).
Artistic representations of the Olmecs, and the Danzantes from Monte Alban share, among all, one striking characteristic; they all depict figures of multiple races, namely Negroid, Asian and Caucasian (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
What is fascinating about this enigmatic civilisation to us modern viewers is how they represented themselves. In addition to [the] Negroid features [of the basalt colossal heads], many artefacts depict individuals who have Oriental or European features. It is therefore very interesting to pay close attention to how the figures are presented – how they dressed; the head gear they wore; the shape of their eyes, nose, ears and mouths; the way they held their hands; and the expressions on their faces. […] Who are these people? Where they isolated villagers or strangers from a faraway land?”(Childress 2007:14)
The stelae’s representations would accordingly indicate both: solid evidence of an Olmec artistic influence depicted in the stelae of Monte Alban and so an international character of the Olmec civilisation (Childress 2007:14; Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
An academic science has found nothing extraordinary in this regard, although archaeologists have estimated that the reliefs are very old and date from between 1000 and 600 BC. As in many other cases of stone slabs and carvings, this time period was established due to an analysis of the organic matter accumulated in the reliefs, and not on the basis of studies of the granite steles themselves, which cannot be objectively dated (Hancock 2016:154). The slabs were either carved at Monte Alban (conceivably not by the Zapotecs) or brought there from the outside (probably by the Olmecs themselves) (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Such an assumption comes from the fact that, except for the single example of a similar piece of art found at San Jose Magote, such representations remain unknown in the Oaxaca Valley.
Slain captives or epidemic victims?
The Danzantes means in Spanish dancers in reference to the figures’ poses as they look as if caught in a dancing movement (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014).
If they represent members of the Olmec civilization, and the stelae of Monte Alban are its legacy, it must have been a civilization of racial equality. Graham Hancock (2016:153) believes that the proud faces of the enormous heads of the so-called Olmecs from La Venta could not have depicted slaves or the images of slender and bearded men there showed no men with knees bowed to no one; their faces radiate with the dignity of great aristocrats (Ibid.:153).
It seems, however, that in Monte Alban someone has immortalized in stone the story of the Olmecs’ fall. Although the Oaxaca sculptors made portraits of the same civilization whose faces are visible in the Olmec homeland, it is no longer a work of the same character, which is indicated by the incomparably lower level of workmanship of the stelae and the lack of visible strength, power and life force in their iconography that once characterized the Olmecs (Hancock 2016:154). The figures of Monte Alban are naked, some huddled in a fetal position and others stretched limply on the ground, like corpses (Ibid.:154).
After the most prominent theory, the slabs symbolise death of slain captives (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). Their closed eyes would actually indicate that they represent the human corpses (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). However, other characteristics, such as their nakedness, deformation of limps, positions displaying possibly an agonising death or the presence of female characters stay against that theory (Ibid.). Robin Heyworth (“Are the Danzantes …” 2014) points out that “with more than 300 anonymous gravestones of sickly looking humans, it would make more sense if they [represent] an epidemic.” Maybe the Olmecs were actually forced to leave their homeland around 500 BC due to some kind of epidemic spreading out and they deliberately abandoned their land for the isolated hilltop, just in the same way as other tribes in the Oaxaca Valley did (Ibid.). Likewise San Jose Magote, which also deserted in around 500 BC) (Ibid.).
Plague and Cloud People
If the Olmecs had been the authors of Monte Alban, they must have chosen that exact site on purpose. Did they look for a shelter against the epidemic, which evidence would be the stelae commemorating people smashed by the disease? (Heyworth “Are the Danzantes …” 2014). In this context the stela from San Jose Magote may have been a warning of the spreading epidemic and the call for evacuation to the hilltop (Ibid.).
Or would Monte Alban be rather an answer to the celestial obsession of its builders and inhabitants? (Heyworth “The Encrypted …” 2014). The Olmecs may have been the architects of Monte Alban. However, as discussed above, they passed on their knowledge to the Zapotecs and also strongly influenced their culture. The latter referred to themselves as the Cloud People as they believed that their ancestors (?) descended from the sky and hence they may have used the city to communicate with them through celestial appearances (Ibid.).
Or maybe two of those factors overlapped and eventually resulted in establishing the city.
Here comes the Teotihuacan Culture!
On the other side, there are also theories on strong relations of Monte Alban with the enigmatic Teotihuacan city, especially in the span of the fourth century AD. (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). For instance, it is believed that there was a small community of Zapotecs who inhabited Teotihuacan (Ibid.). On the other side, some later structures of Monte Alban may have been influenced by Teotihuacán architecture or even been dedicated to that city (Ibid.).
Interesting is also the fact that both cities simultaneously held their pivotal role in their regions until their dramatic downfall around the eight century AD. (Heyworth “ A Brief History” 2014). Since the origins of people who lived in Teotihuacán are shrouded in mystery (they are just called the Teotihuacan Culture), some authors again recognise the Olmecs as the founders of the city or at least that it was strongly influenced by their culture and architecture (Owen 2000; Childress 2007:74; Delsol, 2010).
One mystery leads to another
We had already been wandering around the ancient city for two hours, taking notes. The cold had gone away. Now I felt a delicate warmth of sunshine but filled with streams of fresh air. Having climbed down another pyramidal construction, I sat on one of the crumbling blocks of stone. Then I took off my cardigan and put my face out to the sun. ‘What a great feeling to take part in the mystery, yet being so far away from it in time’, I thought.
Today we do not even know how the city was originally called by its architects. Hmm! We do not even know who they actually were: the Olmecs, Zapotecs, aka the Cloud People, the Teotihuacan Culture … ? Moreover, the origins of each of those civilizations themselves still remain unclear! One mystery leads to another …
Yet, the legacy of Monte Alban cannot be overestimated. Actually, “much of what we associate with Mesoamerica [today] appears to come from this ancient hilltop sanctuary […] in central Oaxaca” (Strom 2019). It was also in Monte Alban, where archaeologists had found hieroglyphic texts, which have not been deciphered yet (Hancock 2016:154). They are engraved on some of the stelae depicting the various races (Ibid.:154). The researchers considered them to be the oldest writing monuments so far uncovered in Mexico (Ibid.:154). Today, little is known about their authors (Ibid.:154). It is only believed that the people who created Monte Alban were excellent builders and professional astronomers (Ibid.:154).
Featured image: People dying in agony or slain captives? One of mysterious stelas in Monte Alban, representing anthropomorphic figures of intriguing features. Copyright©Archaeotravel.
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.
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