Identification. The Mazatec, together with other ethnic groups, inhabit the Sierra Madre Occidental in central Mexico. They took their name from their ancient capital, called Maza-apatl or Mazatlan, founded around A . D . 890.
Location. Until around the 1950s, the Mazatec were concentrated in the northern part of the state of Oaxaca. In 1954 the construction of a system of dams over the effluents of the Río Papaloapan (Río de las Mariposas) had a serious effect on some of the Mazatec and Chinantec communities. Consequently, they were relocated elsewhere in Oaxaca and in the southern part of the state of Veracruz.
Mazatec territory consists of two areas that have distinct environments and cultures. In the highlands, or the sierra, elevations vary from 1,800 to 3,200 meters, and the climate ranges from temperate to cold. It is humid, and there is cloud cover almost year-round. There is abundant rainfall in summer. The natural vegetation consists of forests of pine, oak, and madroño ( Arbustus ).
The lowlands lie in both tropical and temperate zones, at elevations from sea level to 1,800 meters. Irrigated by the four effluents of the Río Papaloapan—the Santo Domingo, the Río Tonto, the Qiuotepec, and the Usila—the lowland area has a great variety of ecosystems within humid mountain-tropical forests at 400 to 1,700 meters above sea level, which contain woods like balsam ( Myroxy-Ion ), primavera ( Tabebuia ), and guanacaste ( Enterolobium ).
Demography. The 1990 general census reported a population of 168,374 Mazatec, most of them in an area of approximately 2,400 square kilometers, within the states of Oaxaca, which has the largest population (146,928), and Veracruz. The remainder are distributed principally in the state of Puebla and in Mexico City. Population density in some zones approaches 60 inhabitants per square kilometer. Approximately 70 percent of the Mazatec live in the highlands, 30 percent in the lowlands. The municipios with the largest indigenous populations are Huautla de Jiménez, San José Tenango, and San Cristóbal Mazatlán (in the highlands) and Santa Maria Chilchotla, San Miguel Soyaltepec, and San Lucas Ojitlan (in the lowlands).
Linguistic Affiliation. Morris Swadesh (1960) classified Mazatec as belonging to the Popoloca-Zapoteca Language Group, a subgroup of the Macro-Mixtecan Family. Other linguists place it within the Mazatec-Popoluca Family, of the Savizaa Trunk of the Otomanguean Group. Mazatec is a tonal language: the meaning of a word depends on the tone in which it is pronounced. There are at least four different dialects that are mutually intelligible.