Much of Zapotec history centers on the large archaeological site of Monte Alban. The site was first occupied some time between 800 and 400 B.C., probably by Zapotecs from the outset. Archaeologists divide the history of Monte Alban into five phases, or periods:
200 B.C.--A.D. 250
By about 200 B.C., the end of period I, the entire ridgetop on which Monte Alban is located had been artificially flattened, and the population had grown to about 10,000. Large scale building was already taking place during Period I, though most of this construction has been covered by the massive structures built later.
One theory for the development of Monte Alban is as a governing and religious center for the many smaller settlements in the Oaxaca Valley. There is also evidence that much of this centralization did not take place voluntarily; the many carved stone figures referred to as "Los Danzantes," carved during Period I, are often interpreted as a record of the conquest by Monte Alban of the smaller communities of the Central Valleys, the names of which appear as place-glyphs on these figures.
In Period II the full-scale flattening of the surrounding ridgetops, and the terracing of surrounding slopes took place, indicating that Monte Alban was now in a position to command human resources not available to it before.
The peak of Monte Alban's development took place during Period III. It is primarily the architecture of this period that one sees in a visit to the site; the enormous North and South platforms, with splendid remains of pyramid-temples, palaces, patios and tombs.
For reasons still not entirely clear, the site was gradually abandoned beginning around A.D. 700. One theory is that the local resources of wood and fertile slopes had been depleted. This does not explain however the simultaneous decline of other civilizations of the area, including Teotihuacan. From about 950 to the arrival of the Spanish in 1521, there was minimal life at Monte Alban, except that Mixtecs arriving in the Central Valleys between 1100 and 1350 reused old tombs at the site to bury their own dignitaries.