Monte Albán rises up some 400 metres above the fertile Oaxaca valley in south central Mexico.
The valley floor itself sits at around another 1,600 metres above sea level.
Some 3,000 years ago, ancestors of the contemporary Zapotecs, now raising their fruits and vegetables below, began leveling the mountaintop and constructing an impressive ceremonial centre of step pyramids, plazas and tombs.
The construction of the ball court, an enigmatic angled building called the Observatory and the wide platform pyramids that dominate the ends of the great plaza demanded a stable, cohesive and dedicated population.
Just the fact that any water needed at this dry-topped mountain site, either for building purposes or slaking the thirst of the workers, had to be carried up from the valley below suggests an impressive devotion to the communal task.
One might argue that coercion or the threats from a dominating elite of priests and warriors forced a cowering populace to supply the needed labour.
The site took shape, though, over 2,000 years from roughly 900 BC to when rival Mixtec warriors drove them off the mountain at around 1300 AD
It is hard to imagine a society based on fear or the menace of violence lasting for more than 2,000 years. Something else had to keep them building and rebuilding Monte Albán for over two millennia.
The Zapotecs have another name for Monte Albán. They call it Danipaguache or the Sacred Mountain of Life.
A set of common beliefs, a shared vision of society and a recognition of mutually accepted rights and responsibilities probably are what held them together as they build their civilization over the span of 100 generations. Today we might call that a social contract.
The last time I visited Monte Albán, I followed a trail out behind the pyramid that caps the north end of the Great Plaza.
Scrubby trees and brush obscure mounds, which hide still unrestored platforms and small pyramids.
Bits of the ancient, red-tinted stucco that once covered the structures littered the path.
Looking off to the east you can see the city of Oaxaca some nine kilometres away growing out towards Monte Albán.
The 600,000 or so citizens of Oaxaca have witnessed a scene of violence over the last week as Mexico’s President Fox sent in the troops to end five months of protests.
Water cannons, baton wielding police in riot gear and soldiers carrying automatic rifles present a pretty clear picture of the breakdown of the contemporary social contract between the governed and those governing.
The current crisis in Oaxaca began when the local of the National Union of Education Workers went out on strike for better wages, working conditions as well as demands for school uniforms and shoes for all students and a higher budget for classroom supplies.
A heavy-handed response by the state government in June quickly ignited much broader public discontent which grew into a protest movement.
Sixteen national and international non-governmental organizations issued a report on the causes of the conflict last month.
They saw “marginality, destitution, corruption and violation of human rights” as the real reasons behind it.
An Indymedia article noted that the report “affirms that the majority of the 3.5 million Oaxaca citizens, mainly farmers and indigenous, live in poverty, with an absence of infrastructure and basic services, which must be considered to solve the crisis.”
Protesters also pointed to government corruption as a key concern leading them to demand the ouster of Oaxaca state governor Ulises Ruiz.
Protesting groups created the Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca to co-ordinate their peaceful civil disobedience campaign.
On October 27, violence swept the city as paramilitaries opened fire on protesters. Three people died — including a teacher and an Indymedia correspondent.
Since then, a nurse and a social worker have lost their lives. Escalating state violence triggered the intervention of federal troops this week.
The underlying causes of the protest will have to be addressed. Tear gas, bullets and batons don’t build social peace.
Over and over again we are seeing right around our world the need for a new global social contract. It must be based on just, equitable and sustainable vision for society.
If we can find this common vision, maybe, just maybe, we then can build a global civilization as long lasting as the Zapotecs did on their Sacred Mountain of Life.