Indigenous Voices in Pedagogical Materials: Zapotec Number Systems and Indigenous Epistemologies

By Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial, Feb. 25, 2020; @xochizin


Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship, Post 2. This is the second in a series of monthly blog posts by participants in the 2019 ACLS Digital Extension Grant project “Ticha: advancing community-engaged digital scholarship” (PI Lillehaugen) published on GlobalSL and TichaPrevious blog posts in this series: Post 1.


Ticha facilitates content which has been contextualized with the input of diverse perspectives including those of the members of the Ticha team, additional Zapotec community members, and students. Together, with funding from ACLS, the Ticha project is creating teaching materials [see last month’s blog], such as the unit on the Zapotec number system which two members of the team introduced in college classrooms over the last several weeks. I brought this content to my History of Mexican Peoples course at California State University, Northridge and Dr. Felipe Lopez introduced it to his Zapotec Culture and Language course at University of California, San Diego. Here I share the power of seeing Zapotec language manuscripts on a digital platform, bringing Indigenous language content to the classroom, and having students engage with the content through discussing Zapotec epistemology in detail.

When we talk about community-engaged scholarship we have to talk about not only including members of a community into the work, but also of including content produced by members of the community. By incorporating digital versions of sixteenth century Zapotec texts in the teaching unit on the Zapotec number system, we amplify Indigenous knowledge and extend the conversation to math, science, architecture, commerce, and the pre-Hispanic calendar system. The manuscripts and the snapshots of colonial life these provide encourage students to think about the long history of Zapotec intellectual culture and to consider ways in which Zapotec number systems were employed in the past and how these numbers exist in the Zapotec languages spoken today. Furthermore, it reminds students to be mindful of the vocabulary that we use to discuss this content and that we must credit the intellectual power of Indigenous Peoples who originally contributed to the production of these texts.

When I presented my History of Mexican Peoples course with the Ticha materials on the Zapotec number system, my class was at the end of the section that focuses on Indigenous intellectual culture in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. Students by this time had seen material evidence such as Mesoamerican monumental architecture, calendar systems and writing systems alongside other monuments of history dating back over 5,000 years when Zapotecs began organizing their societies in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. I showed them Zapotec numbers as they were recorded in calendrical context circa the first century CE, like those in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Monte Alban stelae 12 and 13 showing Zapotec numbers circa 1st century CE

(Source Wiki Commons)


The 40 students in my class understood the context in which Zapotec writing technology developed. But now they had the opportunity to look closely into the Zapotec number system and to engage with Indigenous produced knowledge. For example, in this lesson they are taught the basic building blocks of the Zapotec number system, then asked to analyze larger numbers. Consider the word for 130, xopalallebichij.  Only though understanding what the word means can we fully appreciate the system.  Students learn that we can break the word up in the following way, making the vigesimal (base 20) counting system apparent:




‘six 20s and 10 (more)’ = 130


I asked students to consider ways in which Zapotec society applied this epistemology in their monuments of history as well as in their daily social actions, such as counting tortillas. One of the most dynamic parts of this discussion led to the fact that we were talking about a Native society that is not the Aztec or the Maya, societies that are commonly associated with calendar systems and monumental architecture. This part of the discussion was very lively, especially when I encouraged students to look at pre-Hispanic chronology which placed the beginnings of the Zapotec writing system over 2,000 years before that of the Aztec.

2,500 years ago, Zapotec urban planners in concert with architects and religious specialists used complex mathematics to design, organize and construct many buildings that still stand to this day. In my lecture that day, I showed images of Zapotec archaeological sites, focusing on specific buildings such as building J in Monte Alban, Oaxaca. This building was constructed in the first century AD, and served as an astronomical observatory where Zapotec intellectuals recorded the movement of the heavens and developed a rich repertoire of scientific knowledge that was used in other social engagements such as politics, agricultural production, and the recording of history. Many years later, the Zapotec number system was recorded using an alphabet introduced by Europeans in the first half of the sixteenth century, as seen in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Zapotec numbers

(Cordova 1578a: 102r;


Today, one of the most gratifying aspects of the Ticha work is that, as a Zapotec scholar, I get to share the intellectual accomplishments of my ancestors with the internet community. As a member of this Native society, I strive to facilitate scholarship on Zapotec studies and relay information that my ancestors recorded over the course of hundreds of years. Throughout my own K-12 education experience I had never felt included in the academic curriculum. Thus, my inspiration for this work was born the very first time I read about Oaxacan history in a college classroom. When I finally saw the history of my ancestors included in an academic conversation, I felt empowered and encouraged to learn more. It was a powerful sentiment that I hope to extend through the teaching modules we are creating.

At the same time, it is an opportunity to remind people that many speakers of Indigenous languages continue to speak their languages in the 21st century. Zapotec is a threatened language and the Ticha team hopes our efforts will increase awareness of the Native language and help people understand that many other Indigenous societies like the Zapotec have a history of complex Intellectual life that we can understand and applaud from our own position in history. We need to hold scholarship accountable for how it has treated Indigenous Peoples’ contributions to the world. This project is a small step in favor of encouraging a heightened understanding of Zapotec language and intellectual culture.