In Mesoamerica – a cultural area which encompasses Mexico and northern Central America – many great civilizations have emerged at various times. The Mayans and Aztecs are often mentioned among the pre-Hispanic civilizations of Mexico. But the number of cultures that have inhabited or were still inhabiting Mexico when the Spanish conquerors arrived is much higher. Let us focus on one of them, the Mixtec civilization, still little known to the general public but yet one of the most important.



The Mixtec people took root in the cultural area named after the Mixteca people, located in the southwestern part of Mexico, in the present states of Oaxaca (western part), eastern Guerrero and southern Puebla. The « cloud people » (Ñudzahui in Mixtec), as they call themselves, closely identify with their territory: a mountainous and remote region of difficult access, particularly subject to the whims of the climate which was an asset for the emergence of the people in a peaceful world, protected from any neighbouring invasions. This is also the reason why the arrival and settlement of Spanish settlers during the 16th century in this region occurred later.

Carte - Mixteca - Mexique
Map of Mixteca in the south-west of Mexico



In Mesoamerica, the chronology is divided into different major periods which do not correspond to those known in Europe. The so-called classical period (200-900 AD) is the period that saw the emergence of the Mayan civilization. The post-classical period (900-1500 AD) is that of the Aztec civilization. The emergence and development of the Mixtec civilization also date from the Postclassical period.


Politics and social life:

The great dominant city-states collapsed at the end of the Classical period. The Post Classical period is therefore characterized by a myriad of peoples who developed very specific cultures. The cohesion of peoples was built around local leaders who federated their respective regions around a strong and local power. Particularly unequivocal was the Mixtec case where this situation was more blatant. Its political system was based on a community of small independent kingdoms, sometimes on the scale of city-states, or even village-states, which maintained many interactions between themselves. Social life is organized on the basis of a strict hierarchy led by powerful royal dynasties.

Mixtèque_vase tripode polychrome
Mixtec three-footed polychrome vase


Cultural aspects:

The Mixtec culture has greatly influenced its neighbours. It is particularly well known for the exceptional quality of its craft objects. It is mainly known to produce very elaborate jewellery, in gold, silver and semi-precious stones. The culture was also spread throughout Mexico via polychrome ceramics, which were very typical of its major producers – the Mixtecs. On the other hand, it is one of the few Mesoamerican civilizations to have developed a writing system. Even if its books were produced by thousands, there are only a few left today, but studying them helps us understand better the customs and history of this people.

Gold pendant representing a Mixtec leader



A Mixtec minority of about 500,000 people (mostly Mixtec-speaking) still live in Mexico today. The art objects of the past centuries are claimed as heritage of their ancestors whose memory is essential for their own preservation. Their territorial and cultural demands create conflicts with national authorities. But their survival is also a strength because many of their traditions have been preserved and are essential to the understanding of ancient civilization and history of Mexico.

Author: Estelle Pautret

Translator: Laurane Mandin


For further documentation:

  • BERNAL, Ignacio, et al., (1986) Le Mexique, des origines aux Aztèques. Gallimard, Paris. (L’Univers des formes; 33).
  • DAHLGREN DE JORDAN, Barbro, (1990) La Mixteca: su cultura e historia prehispánicas. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México, D.F.
  • «La Mixteca», Arqueología mexicana. Mars-avril 2008, vol. 15, n° 90.

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