The Lacandon Maya, or los lacandones as they are known in Mexico and Guatemala, were found in dispersed settlements throughout the tropical forests of lowland Chiapas and Petén in the mid-nineteenth century. However, by the mid-twentieth century Lacandon populations dwindled and became concentrated in the villages of Najá, Mensabak (Metzabók), and Lacanjá in Chiapas due to pressure from loggers and ranchers and waves of migrations by foreign settlers. The Lacandon are recognized by their white gowns, long hair, and particular dialect of the Yucatec Mayan language. There are two main groups which are separated by slight cultural and linguistic differences: the northern and southern Lacandon. They are slash-and-burn horticulturalists who raise maize, beans, squash, root crops, bananas, and a large variety of plants in their fields and gardens. Additionally, the Lacandon subsist by hunting, fishing, and gathering resources from the surrounding forests. Today the Lacandon also make a living through tourism, wage earnings, and by selling lumber and farming rights to their lands. The Lacandon were well known for their non-Christian religious practices which until about 1980 included offering incense, food, and drink to their native deities through "god pots," or incense burners, and burning anthropomorphic rubber figurines. At this time roads brought extensive social and economic changes to the Lacandon, who are slowly losing many of their aboriginal customs and domestic practices.
Historical and archaeological evidence points to the cultural origins of the Lacandon Maya. The northern part of the geographical area where they are found was populated by Yucatec Mayan speakers and the southern portion by Cholan speakers during the Spanish colonial period. The tropical forests of the Maya lowlands were a remote refuge for Maya escaping the Spanish conquest in Yucatan and the Maya highlands, and the new migrants interacted and intermarried with the native Maya groups. This blend of peoples and cultures led to the creation of the Lacandon in the late colonial period; they retained Yucatec Mayan and certain behaviors from Cholan and migrant groups. The earliest known descriptions of the Lacandon and their lifeways are found in Spanish documents dating to the 1780s, but some of the Lacandon material culture has affinities with remains from the Late Post-Classic to early historic periods (ca. 1400–1700) in Yucatan, Petén, and lowland Chiapas. At the end of the colonial period the Lacandon had large populations located in villages and scattered extended families which were organized around political leaders or head men. When populations decreased to only a few hundred people at the turn of the twentieth century, the Lacandon sociopolitical and economic structure was reduced to local bands.
Archaeologists have found Lacandon incense burners in ancient Maya ruins throughout Petén in Guatemala and Chiapas in Mexico, left there over the course of the twentieth century, which speaks to the importance of these sites for the Lacandon. In traditional Lacandon beliefs the ruins are the homes of gods, who must be given offerings to cure people or to bring rain for crops. The geographical extension of these finds also points to the fact that Lacandon populations were much larger and more dispersed in the past. Lacandon settlements were found near sacred lakes and cliff paintings in Chiapas, and Lacandon deities are depicted in the precontact rock art found on lakeside cliffs, an indication of their ancient roots. Excavations in nineteenth-century Lacandon settlements demonstrate that despite a remote existence, the Lacandon maintained trade with foreigners for metal tools such as knives, axes, machetes, and scissors, and for other exotic goods including painted pottery, glass bottles, and metal pots. The evidence also shows that they shunned items such as guns, canned goods, and Christian artifacts.
Historically, the Lacandon are known for interesting behaviors no longer witnessed ethnographi-cally. Some nineteenth-century Lacandon were associated with cannibalism, homicide, and blood letting rites in which religious practitioners offered their blood to the gods. Other Lacandon used poisoned arrows during conflicts and blowguns for hunting birds and small animals. Disease, conflict, and assimilation affected Lacandon populations and resulted in elaborate visitation rituals at Lacandon settlements in which outsiders shouted their intentions to hidden settlements and left their arrows and machetes in the bush. Lacandon women were often victims of violence and neglect. Historically women were captured in their settlements by men seeking wives or traded to outsiders for goods. Lacandon men were frequently polygamous, gaining allies through marriage and economic power through extra labor, but women often controlled the domestic units and influenced their husbands in undertaking trade expeditions to obtain personal and household goods.
Anguiano, Raúl. Journal of an Expedition to the Lacandon Jungle, 1949. Mexico City: Quálitas Compañia de Seguros, 1999.
Boremanse, Didier. Hach Winik: The Lacandon Maya of Chiapas, Southern Mexico. Albany, NY: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, 1998.
Marion Singer, Marie-Odile. Los hombres de la selva: Un estudio de tecnología cultural en medio selvático. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1991.
McGee, R. Jon. Watching Lacandon Maya Lives. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.
Nations, James D. The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.
Palka, Joel. Unconquered Lacandon Maya: Ethnohistory and Archaeology of Indigenous Culture Change. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005.
Perera, Victor, and Robert D. Bruce. The Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Maya of the Mexican Rainforest. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1985.
Soustelle, Jacques. The Four Suns: Recollections and Reflections of an Ethnologist in Mexico. Translated by E. Ross. New York: Grossman Publishers, 1970.
Vos, Jan de. La paz de Dios y del Rey: La conquista de la selva Lacandona, 1525–1821. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1988.
Joel W. Palka