Monte Albán was first occupied around 500 BC, probably by Zapotecs from the start. It likely had early cultural connections with the Olmecs to the northeast.
Archaeologists divide Monte Albán’s history into five phases. The years up to about 200 BC (phase Monte Albán I) saw the leveling of the hilltop, the building of temples and probably palaces, and the growth of a town of 10, 000 or more people on the hillsides.
Hieroglyphs and dates in a dot-and-bar system carved during this era may mean that the elite of Monte Albán were the first people to use writing, and a written calendar, in Mexico. Between 200 BC and AD 300 (Monte Albán II) the city came to dominate more and more of Oaxaca.
The city was at its peak from about 300 to 700 (Monte Albán III), when the main and surrounding hills were terraced for dwellings, and the population reached about 25, 000. Most of what we see now dates from this time.
Monte Albán was the center of a highly organized, priest-dominated society, controlling the extensively irrigated Valles Centrales, which held at least 200 other settlements and ceremonial centers.
Many Monte Albán buildings were plastered and painted red, and talud-tablero architecture (a stepped building style with alternating vertical and sloping sections) indicates influence from Teotihuacán. Nearly 170 underground tombs from this period have been found, some of them elaborate and decorated with frescoes.
Between about 700 and 950 (Monte Albán IV), the place was abandoned and fell into ruin. Phase Monte Albán V (950–1521) saw minimal activity, except that Mixtecs arriving from northwestern Oaxaca reused old tombs here to bury their own dignitaries.