By Brooke O’Connor
The entrance to the underworld is here in Oaxaca, and now we can prove it!
The Mitla Ruins: Home to Multiple Cultures
Approximately an hour’s drive from Oaxaca City is Mitla. The name Mitla comes from the Nahuatl word Mictlan, which means “underworld” or “place of rest” in Zapotec, a Nahuatl language still spoken widely in the region. The Zapotecs emerged from the agricultural communities of the central valleys of Oaxaca, building their capital at Monte Alban (approximately where the state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, is now); the Zapotec civilization flourished at Monte Alban from about 500 BCE to 900 CE.
At that time, perhaps driven out by their neighbors to the west, the Mixtec, the Zapotecs created a new capital at Mitla. Mitla dates to about 100 CE, but may be much earlier; its earliest extant buildings are from about 450 CE. Its ruins are perfect examples of geometric stone architecture that tell stories of a culture steeped in tradition.
Mitla is considered the main religious center of pre-Hispanic culture in the area; both Zapotecs and Mixtecs frequented this “religious metropolis.” John M.D. Pohl, an archeologist at Cal State at LA, has written extensively on the paintings on doorway lintels at Mitla. His analysis has identified the creation tales of three distinct cultures: the eastern Nahua, the Mixtecs from Apoala, and the Zapotecs from Zaachila.
Eventually these cultures weakened in influence and came under the rule of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. When the Spanish arrived in 1520, Moctezuma welcomed them to Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), only to see virtually all of Mexico conquered and colonized within a year.
Mitla and the Spanish
Here’s where the plot thickens.
In 1552, after the conquest, Mitla was ordered to be destroyed, as were many indigenous religious centers. In 1590, Dominican missionaries began building the church of San Pablo Apóstol (St. Paul the Apostle) atop a platform left by the earlier demolition. They documented how, during construction, they had sealed off the entrances of a labyrinth beneath it.
Francisco de Burgoa, born in Oaxaca around 1600, had joined the Dominican order in 1629; he became a “chronicler,” or historian; in 1674 he wrote about Mitla in a broad-ranging geography that included the “Sito astronómico de esta Provincia de Predicadores de Antequera, Valle de Oaxaca” – the astronomical site of the Province of Preachers of Antequera (Oaxaca de Juárez) in the Valley of Oaxaca.
He described an extensive cavity in the earth at Mitla. When the missionaries went to explore, they found that
such was the corruption and bad smell, the dampness of the floor, and a cold wind which extinguished the lights, that at the little distance, they had already penetrated … they resolved to come out, and ordered this infernal gate to be thoroughly closed with masonry.
The Dominicans sealed all entrances to the tunnel network; the Zapotecs had called the labyrinth Lyobaa, or “place of rest” – i.e., the underworld.
The royal Zapotecs were said to have been buried in Mitla in cruciform graves that were directly beneath the flooring, according to a legend passed down to the Spanish. The Spanish further reported the existence of a Zapotec priest who resembled the Catholic Pope. He was known as the vuijatao, or “Great Seer.” People would travel from all across Oaxaca Valley to consult with the vuijatao, seeking prophecies, judicial opinions, and contact with their departed relatives. The vuijatao lived in what is now called the Group of Columns, where the burial chambers for the highest levels of royalty were located. Families would bring their mummified monarchs to be buried among the columns, where the vuijatao could speak with them.
Mitla’s multiethnic past demonstrates that holiness transcends cultural boundaries. What was formerly the residence of the Zapotec patron deities of death and the underworld is now the residence of twenty-one Catholic patron saints. Every year, the procession for Saint Paul begins within the ruins, with the bulk of the town present. Some locations never lose their sacred meaning.
What’s the Latest?
Now in late summer of 2023, we have some solid and scientific answers from Proyecto Lyobaa: Estudio geofisico del subsuelo en Mitla, Oaxaca (Project Lyobaa: Geophysical study of the subsoil at Mitla, Oaxaca). The project is a collaboration among the Mexican National Institute of History and Anthropology (INAH), the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and the Association for Archaeological Research and Exploration (ARX Project).
Results from Stage 1 of Project Lyobaa have been released. An archeological team used ground penetrating radar, electrical resistive tomography, and seismic noise tomography for non-intrusive visualization; they combined these results to produce a three-dimensional model of the underground. They discovered extensive rooms and passageways 5 to 8 meters (a bit more in yards) underneath the church of San Pablo, along with evidence of an ancient temple and a giant cavern, right underneath the main altar of the Catholic church.
According to The ARX Project report on the 2022 season of Project Lyobaa,
These findings will help rewrite the history of the origins of Mitla and its development as an ancient site, as well as providing valuable information for the management and prevention of seismic and geological risk in the area.
Stage 2 of Project Lyobaa has already begun; the schedule includes more geophysical scans in other groups of structures. Researchers will work to confirm the existence of further subterranean rooms and passageways, as well as to provide information to mitigate structural risks to the Mitla ruins.
Whenever burial sites like this are rediscovered, uncovered, or tampered with, it opens the imagination to another Hollywood blockbuster. Let’s hope the writers integrate modern Zapotecs and Mixtecs into not just the storyline for accuracy, but as the main actors in the movie.