Identification. The Spanish name "Zapoteco" stems from the Nahuatl name for the Zapotee, "Tsapotecatl," which, in turn, was derived from the name of a fruit, the zapote, that was common in the region. Pre-Hispanic Zapotee referred to themselves as the "Ben 'Zaa" (cloud people). On occasion, modern Zapotee refer to themselves as "Za" (the people), but it is more typical of them to identify themselves as being from a particular community or region.
Location. The Zapotee are the largest indigenous group in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is located between 15° and 19° N and 94° and 99° W. The Zapotee inhabit four main areas of Oaxaca: the central valley, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the sierra region in the north, and the southern coastal mountain area called the Sierra de Miahuatlán. The central valley (average elevation 1,550 meters) has a temperate climate, the isthmus and other coastal areas are tropical and semiarid, whereas the sierra regions to the north and south, with variable elevations higher than the central valley, have a cooler climate than the temperate central valley. All regions experience dry and rainy seasons, the latter beginning in May and extending to October. Diverse microclimates exist in all of these regions.
Demography. The indigenous populations of Oaxaca generally, and the Zapotee in particular, underwent a marked depopulation following the Spanish Conquest. For example, the population of the central valley, estimated at about 350,000 when the Spanish arrived, had declined to about 40,000 or 45,000 by the 1630s, and regained its pre-Conquest level only in the mid-1970s. In 1971 the state of Oaxaca had 307,245 Zapotee speakers; in 1960 the figure was 253,438.
Linguistic Affiliation. Zapotee languages belong to the Otomanguean Language Family. There are probably at least nine separate, mutually unintelligible Zapotee languages: one in the central valley, one in the isthmus, four in the northern sierra, and three in the southern Sierra de Miahuatlán. Additionally, dialect differences often exist between communities.