In Pre-Columbian times, the Mixtec were one of the major civilizations of Mesoamerica. Important ancient centers of the Mixtec include the ancient capital of Tilantongo, as well as the sites of Achiutla, Cuilapan, Huamelupan, Mitla, Tlaxiaco, and Yucuñudahui. The Mixtec also made major constructions at the ancient city of Monte Albán (which had originated as a Zapotec city before the Mixtec gained control of it). The work of Mixtec artisans who produced work in stone, wood, and metal were well regarded throughout ancient Mesoamerica. The Mixtec were conquered by the Aztec Emperor Auitzotl about 30 years before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores. They put up a fierce and bloody resistance to Spanish rule until they were subdued by the Spanish and their central Mexican allies lead by Pedro de Alvarado.
The Mixtec area, both historically and today, corresponds roughly to the western half of the state of Oaxaca, with some Mixtec communities extending into the neighboring state of Puebla to the north west. The Mixtec people are often subdivided into three geographic and cultural areas: The Mixteca Alta or Highland Mixtec living in the mountains in, around, and to the west of the valley of Oaxaca; the Mixteca Baja or Lowland Mixtec living to the north and west of these highlands, and the Mixteca de la Costa or Coastal Mixtec living in the southern plains and the coast of the Pacific Ocean. For most of Mixtec history the Mixteca Alta was the dominant political force, with the capitals of the Mixtec nation located in the central highlands. The valley of Oaxaca itself was often a disputed border region, sometimes dominated by the Mixtec and sometimes by the neighboring people to the east, the Zapotec.
The Mixtec language was estimated to be spoken by about 300,000 people at the end of the 20th century, although the majority of Mixtec speakers also had at least a working knowledge of the Spanish language.