Category Archives: Oaxacan Anthropology

Interview with Salomon Nahmad.

Life History Interview with Dr. Salomon Nahmad-Sitton, applied anthropologist who lived through, and created, and fought against, Mexico's indigenista policies.

Nahmad 2010_02655
Salomon Nahmad
Nahmad peyote
Huichol Peyote ceremony. Salomon Nahmad Sitton.


Oaxaca, Historical Setting: Continuity and Diversity

Oaxaca, the Historical Setting—Continuity and Diversity

Oaxaca map

Martha Rees

Figure 1. Gabina making tortillas (San Agustin Yatareni)Gabina making tortillas yatareni



Table 1. Language and Maize Domestication

Table 1. Language and maize domestication. Compiled from Mangelsdorf, MacNeish and Galinat (1964) and Josserand, Winter & Hopkins (1984).


Environmental Setting

First Settlers (10,000 BCE-1500BCE) 

Empire (1200 BCE-800CE)

City-States (800CE-1500CE)

Conquest and Colony (1521-1810) to Independence (1810-1910)

Revolution and Reform (1910-1940): Tierra y Libertad

Boom and Bust (1940-1990s)

Globalization (1990…)

Cochineal Production

Continuity and Change

Oaxaca is theoretically important because ecological, linguistic and economic diversity facilitate a regional comparative study, so dear to the anthropological heart. For over 10,000 years, people in the central valleys of Oaxaca have collected and produced crops, crafts and other products, as well as labor for regional, national, and international markets. This overview of the history of Oaxaca from the first human settlements shows how work and production have changed, not in a linear progression from ‘traditional’ use to ‘modern’ exchange production, but back-and-forth in numerous combinations. Oaxaca’s crafts, as well as its rich archaeological and historical record, contribute to Mexican national discourse, that, like international tourist discourses, use ‘tradition’ to characterize Oaxaca. Both discourses see ‘tradition’ as unchanging, indigenous, mystical and primitive. Renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his book Oaxaca Journal (2002), gives these misconceptions a layer of scientific legitimacy with his romantic vision and errors of fact: the mysterious ‘trance-like’ state of the tourist guide (p. 125), and their “primitive” lack of the wheel (p. 151), among others (Rees 2005). Anthropologists, including this author, can only avoid the tendency to exoticize and stereotype the ‘other’ by questioning our assumptions, including our perspective on the past. We romanticize the past by creating an imaginary of positive images; at the same time, we separate ourselves from that past by constructing differences between then and now. We create, transform, and reject ‘tradition.’ This chapter starts with a discussion of tradition and custom in order to analyze the historical record in terms of women’s production of use and exchange values. This analysis shows that in the history of Oaxaca, there are both continuities and change, and that tradition is a dynamic process.

People invoke tradition to refer to a practice or object that exists in the present in an unchanged, ‘authentic’ form that represents the past. Every practice and tradition undergoes constant interpretation and change. García Canclini (1995) criticizes the romantic tendency as conservative of the status quo and elitist, and notes that anthropology has tended to study ‘tradition.’ He goes on to point out that the tension between tradition and modernity is especially strong in Latin America, since many in Latin America see it as backwards and traditional. The search for the authentic primitive and traditional is a search for meaning at the same time that it is resistance against the hegemony of western cultural values. The very dichotomy between traditional and modern is a way of creating and emphasizing difference. García Canclini is talking about cultural production such as crafts, but his ideas are relevant to the study of tradition in general.

All traditions change. Imputing stasis to them is a political position than historical analysis. Take Thanksgiving, for example. The food, the justification or origin myth, the participants, the division of labor—all of these have changed dramatically since the first Thanksgiving. In the case of practices labeled ‘traditional’, the label may represent desire more than reality, a fantasy about the past and a way to characterize the ‘other’ as not us (e.g., not ‘modern’). Peoples or groups are not ‘traditional’—everyone today is modern, and those we call ‘traditional’ often behave more ‘modern’ than we do.

So-called “traditional” characteristics are dynamic and persistent. For example, community assemblies grant land to male household heads, who must cultivate it continuously as well as keep up with community obligations like cargo and tequio (p. 80), or risk having those rights taken away. Male children inherit rights as long as they, in turn, continue to meet their community service obligations. This system keeps people in line and encourages migrants’ return. Structured reciprocal exchange (guelaguetza, see p. 86ff) leaves everyone but the richest in debt to everyone else. Children inherit the guelaguetza debt of their parents, so this, also, encourages people to fulfill their obligations and encourages migrants to return home to fulfill their obligations. These ‘traditional’ community institutions support ‘modern’ practices such as migration, just as migration supports ‘traditional’ fiestas. Tradition (community, crafts, language, ethnicity, fiestas, and labor exchange) is not the opposite of, but part and parcel of “modernity” (e.g., wage labor, migration, and urbanization). Tradition is a symbol of community, but individuals, households and communities contest its practice, resulting in the formation and reformation of identity over time.

Customs are part of tradition; like tradition, they are dynamic, and respond to changes in external conditions, to style and to resources. Food and dress vary around the valleys, but there are important commonalities—and these are similar in both Spanish- and Zapotec-speaking communities. The same goes for food. The triumvirate of maize, beans, and squash has been the staple in Mesoamerica for over five thousand years. Foods like the tortilla, tejate (a delicious nutritious drink made of maize, cacao, the seed of the mamey fruit, flower of the chocolate vine, and sugar), tamales, salsa, and mole have not changed much, but many new foods—including instant coffee, cola drinks, bread, and potato chips—are found in the most remote stores. If food were an indicator of ethnicity, then everyone in the valleys is Zapotec, and everyone is global: eating the ubiquitous local version of the tortilla, the tlayuda, downed with a Coke. This extends to the city, where middle class urban folks claim that they ‘hardly ever eat tortillas,’ and eschew chile even though they eat toasted tlayudas with black beans every day. In rural areas, local food may be devalued as “poor people’s food”—for example the addition of garbanzo to tortilla, initially done to make maize go further, but incidentally providing a complementary source of protein, making the tlayuda with garbanzo, not only a tasty, but nutritious food. In 1997, Inés in Tilcajete told me “before when we were poorer, we stretched the maize by adding garbanzo.”

Squash flowers, chapulines (grasshoppers), and field greens (quelites) are much-appreciated seasonal delicacies. These play an important role in diet and in ecology, since all three are abundant in the summer. The summer is the period of highest nutritional stress, because households have eaten up or planted all that was left of last year’s harvest and the rains increase gastroenteritis (Kappel 1977). With little food, people eat quelites, greens that grow in the fields, excellent sources of protein, iron and vitamins A and C. Their harvest fills an important nutritional need during the summer months, as well as clears the fields for the squash and maize crops. Male squash flowers (revered from the southwestern US to Mexico) are another good source of vitamins and protein (Gijón 1996). Their harvest does not decrease the squash yield. Grasshoppers are small mobile packets of protein (think of them as land shrimp) that can seriously damage the maize crop. Their harvest in July alleviates nutritional stress at the same time that it rids the crop of pests. (Almost) everyone savors unique local chiles—the chile de agua and the Oaxaca pasilla, yellow mole, the guaje—concentrated packages of vitamins A and C. These food customs reflect local environment, history and economy.

History conditions how we look at women and their work. Anyone who visits the central valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, or practically any place in Mexico, sees women working in the fields, making and selling tortillas (see Figure 1), tending goats, weaving straw mats, carrying out a world of activities. Aranda (1985) first reported data on this for Oaxaca, in a book of papers presented at the first national meeting of research on Mexican peasant women. Women in rural or urban Oaxaca engage in a multitude of productive activities. Subsistence and commercial crops are the most important, but crafts and other small production, wage labor (mainly domestic service, described by Howell 2000), petty commerce such as taco stands on the street corner, as well as migrant labor—all are important women’s activities (Murphy and Stepick 1991; Cook and Binford 1990). Women’s activities have changed over time, as is shown in this review of Oaxaca’s history. The thread that runs through this description of resources and history is use and exchange value.

Environmental Setting

Continue reading Oaxaca, Historical Setting: Continuity and Diversity

Oaxaca Misunderstood. A review of Oliver Sacks’ “Oaxaca Journal”

Oaxaca Journal (National Geographic Directions) by Oliver Sacks[1]

Reviewed by Martha W. Rees

Oliver Sack’s journal of a fern tour of Oaxaca, Mexico has a day-by-day coverage of field trips to botanical and fern sites, as well as to archeological sites and contemporary communities. Oaxaca is endowed with one of the most diverse biological communities in America, with more species of pine and oak than anywhere else, and important rain and cloud forest reserves. New species are found every day (google it). Oaxaca is also one of the most diverse cultural regions in the Americas: with 17 separate language families it is one of the most indigenous, and not coincidentally, poorest, areas of Mexico (see Martin et al. 2011). As a result, Oaxaca is the object of European and Asian search for meaning–the exotic, the ‘primitive’, with the lamentable outcome of profound misunderstanding of this wonderful place.

Sacks, whose earlier works on neuroscience I have greatly enjoyed, unfortunately, falls into this group, repeatedly recurring to ethnic and racial stereotypes about local people and practices. For example, Sacks calls Isaac Vásquez in Teotitlán del Valle the “living embodiment of an ancient and noble tradition” (p. 115). Although cotton and other fibers have been used for textiles in Mexico for 7000 years, Teotitlán weaving hasn’t been around that long: it originated with Spanish looms and wool in the sixteenth century, but really took off after US migration in the 1950s (Stephen 2005). The Vásquez’ ‘embody’ themselves, for sure, but they also take credit cards and fly to the US to show ‘genuine American Indian rugs.’ Anthropologists, historians and others who work in Oaxaca get really bent out of shape by these stereotypes, and not just because they’re incorrect; but because they represent a hierarchical social system.

Sacks’ trip to Oaxaca relied on a discredited local ‘expert’. In addition, for some bizarre reason, the group did not visit the Ethnobotanical Gardens [], one of the most beautiful and complete inventories of Oaxacan plant species, and incidentally designed by local artist, Francisco Toledo, the same one who designed the ‘uncanny, red-earthed Martian plantscape’ (p. 25) with the native agaves that Sacks objects to. I wish there had been some basic fact checking (cacahuate is peanut, not chocolate, for starters), but also had someone who knows the history of the region rein in Sacks’ enthusiastic but ill-informed picture: Piñas are not the agave stems (p. 111), and the fall of Monte Albán (and Teotihuacán and the Mayan cities) is not particularly mysterious (p. 124), except to befuddled outsiders. I don’t know if their guide is, in fact, or identifies himself as a Zapotec, but certainly his ‘trance-like’ states (p. 125) make him seem as mysterious as the fall of Monte Albán. It’s not “strange” that the peoples of America are so “advanced” in some areas (e.g., astronomy) and “primitive” in others (e.g., the wheel) (p. 151). They didn’t use the wheel to carry stuff around because they didn’t have animals to pull carts and wagons.

The knowledge and experience of the natural world carried by indigenous peoples has brought recent efforts to make sure that these same people, and not drug companies, plant nurseries and academics reap the profits of this knowledge with intellectual property regulations. It is important not to pick and remove specimens; it is also against the law. Unfortunately, this tour apparently went roaming through the countryside picking up archeological and botanical specimens with no concern for these rules (specimens can be exported, but only with official paperwork and permissions).

Because of its biological and cultural diversity and heritage, Oaxaca is a reservoir of resources for the human race that deserves to be known and appreciated by folks all over the world. In fact, that’s the most common comment I hear from people after they tour the Ethnobotanical gardens—that they had no idea of the diversity and the multiple and important uses indigenous peoples have made of it. It’s a shame that this book does not treat either the resources or the people with respect or with the courtesy of basic correct information.



Martin, Gary J., C. Camacho B. and C. A. Del Campo Garcia, S. Anta Fonseca, F. Chapela Mendoza y M.A. Gonzalez Ortiz. 2011. Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas in Oaxaca, Mexico. Management of Environmental Quality 22(2), 2011:250-266.

Steven, Lynn. 2005. Zapotec Women. Duke University Press. Second edition



[1] 2002, Paperback, Vintage Departures.

Genteel Travel

I like to stay in places that are a bit off the beaten track, often ‘venido a menos‘ or come down from a formerly grander life–places in genteel decline–like me.

INI MWR Camioneta Rojas
Typical case of the anthropologist and the campesinos, Rojas de Cuauhtemoc, Oaxaca, 1983.

Preparing for this kind of travel requires a bit more work, but it’s lots more fun.

Cueva del El Rey Kong-Oy

Que es el arte mexicano?

Que relevancia tienen los restos arqueólogicos?

These are the questions that archeologist Marcus Winter [1] of Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Oaxaca asked at the beginning of his presentation of findings in the Cueva del Rey Kong-Oy in the Mixe (or Ayuuk) ethnic region of Oaxaca, Mexico:

What is Mexican art? When we think of art in Oaxaca we think of Francisco Toledo, Rufino Tamayo and Rodolfo Morales, he says.

And,  what is the relationship between archeological finds and Mexican art, he asks?

In this presentation, Winter took us to the Sierra Mixe, Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Figure 1 illustrates the distribution of Mixe speakers, showing at the same time how invasions and migrations must have separated a once contiguous group into isolates.

Oaxaca Mixe
Figure 1. Mixe Map []
Winter recounts how cavers Jason and Tamara Ballensky (co-authors of the article this presentation is based on) explored a horizontal cave, and half a kilometer in, they came upon 65 human and 15 animal figures, some life-size, in the clay-dirt of the cave floor (see Figure 2).

Oaxaca Mixe Map Cueva Rey Condoy Ballensky
Figure 2 Cueva Rey Condoy []
The largest and first, a male and female couple, are naked with exposed genitals (Figure 3)—the Rey Kong-Oy?

Oaxaca Mixe Cueva rey+condoy figures Ballensky Marcus+Winter
Figure 3. Jason Ballensky []
 Winter and his team took up the archeological research in this amazing find  [2].

Dating these figures is difficult, with only one potsherd from the Monte Alban II period (100 years BCE – 200 CE), and that near the entrance of the cave, Winter explains.

But similar work in other caves may shed some light. John Pohl and Javier Urcid describe millenarian movements that sound like cargo cults in the post classic period (starting after 1000CE, and obviously, later) in which sacred leaders stored goodies from trucks to radios in caves, a transformation of earlier texts that tell of mountains as depositories of food [3].

There are other versions, in Zapotec, Mixe and other groups, of the legend of this king, giving him attributes related to the pan Mesoamerican icon, the feathered serpent (Quetzalcoatl in central Mexican Nahuatl, Kukulan in Maya) [See for example–ps://].

The figures in the cave, male and female, may represent more recent or more ancient culture heroes, seeking to expand territorial claims over other groups, or taking refuge from Spanish and Mexican expansion and conquest. Or not.

What is the cultural context of the area where this cave is? The Mixe or Ayuuk are a language and culture group of over 120,000 speakers in the 2000 Censos [].

The language is part of Mixe-Zoque family, which may be the language of the Olmecs, as Pardo and Acevedo document, who built the first monumental structures in Mesoamerica—La Venta and others [4].

The Mixe/Ayuuk continue to maintain, if not increase, the number of speakers and, due to poor communication throughout the mountainous region, have kept outsiders at bay at least as much as other groups, if not more. They have a cultural and linguistic integrity rare in Mexico today.

They are proud of never having been conquered by the Spanish. Certainly oral histories and linguistic evidence indicates that their boundaries have changed over the years.

The Mixe/Ayuuk region lies to the northeast of the central valleys of Oaxaca—flat, good agricultural land that became more and more valuable as agriculture became more important–and the focus of more struggle as empires grew. Regardless of when the figures were created, the borders between the Ayuuk peoples and other groups—Zapotec speakers mainly, has moved back and forth over the centuries.

Maybe they hid their ‘king’ in a cave for safety with the expansion or migration of Zapotec speakers, into the neighboring mountains with the fall of Monte Alban starting in about 700CE. Or maybe, the mountainous area is what Aguirre Beltran [5] called a region of refuge from the Spanish conquest and colonial expansion.

Or both.

Regardless of whether these amazing figures represent a culture hero, Cong-Oy, part of the Mesoamerican iconic origin myth, a post-empire millenarian movement, or a post-conquest refuge, the figures are amazing and beautiful. Which brings us back to Marcus Winter’s initial point: What role do they play in Mexican art? As he suggests, they are, they must be, and they will continue to be part of the richness of Mexican cultural production.


Thanks to Linda Landig for editing help!
[1] Conferencia Magistral “Las esculturas prehispánicas de la Cueva del Rey Cong-Oy, Sierra Mixe, Oaxaca.” Marcus Winter (INAH). Imaginería y Poder Político en Oaxaca y más allá. Ciclo Anual de Conferencias de Arte Indígena en Oaxaca y Áreas Vecinas. Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Oaxaca, Oaxaca. (3 Feb 2015).
[2] Marcus Winter, Tamara Ballensky, Jason Ballensky and Javier Perez Guerrero. 2013. “La Cueva del Rey Kong-Oy” pp. 293-320. In, Marcus Winter and Gonzalo Sánchez Santiago, eds. (2013). Panorama Arqueológico: Dos Oaxacas. Oaxaca: INAH.
[3] Pohl, John M. D. and Javier Urcid. 2013. Cuevas Sagradas y Sagas de Migración: Peregrinajes, Alianzas y Redes de Intercambio en el Suroeste de Mesoamérica durante la Época Postclásica. In, Marcus Winter and Gonzalo Sánchez Santiago, eds. (2013). Panorama Arqueológico: Dos Oaxacas. Oaxaca: INAH [].
[4] Pardo Brugmann, María Teresa and María Luisa Acevedo. 2013. La Dinámica Sociolingüística en Oaxaca: Los Procesos de Mantenimiento o Desplazamiento de las Lenguas Indígenas del Estado. Tomo I. Mexico: Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones Superiores en Antropología Social, 148.
[5] Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzálo. 1968. Regions of Refuge. Human Organization 33:1-74.