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The contemporary Lenca are descendants of South American Chibchan peoples who migrated to El Salvador and Honduras during the eleventh century. They live in the forests of the volcanic mountains of western Honduras, predominantly in the departments of Intibucá, La Paz, and Lempira. A smaller number of Lenca Indians live in eastern El Salvador. Present estimates of the Lenca population vary from 50,000 to 95,000. They currently occupy about 10,000 square kilometers.

It is almost impossible to locate speakers of the Lenca language, which is generally considered to be extinct. Adding to the ambiguity surrounding the Lenca language is that it has eluded clear linguistic classification. Scholars disagree about whether it is more closely related to the Macro-Chibchan Family or the Macro-Mayan Family.

History and Cultural Relations

The pre-Conquest Lenca Empire consisted of four interrelated regions. These were the Care, Cerquin, and Lenca in Honduras and the Potón in El Salvador. The Lenca were not originally indigenous to this area; they emigrated to the region from South America. Their contact with the various Mayan groups and the Aztecan Pipil contributed much to their culture. It is estimated that, at the time of the Conquest, the Lenca numbered between three and six hundred thousand and occupied around 26,000 square kilometers.

In the 1520s Spanish forces under Cortés entered the Lenca region and attempted to conquer them. The Lenca tried to defend themselves but were unable to resist. In the years immediately following, European diseases and forced labor took their toll on the Lenca. By 1550, there were only 25,000 Lenca Indians left. This population level remained relatively stable throughout the colonial period.

In contrast to many other groups in the area who lost their communal lands during the colonial period, many Lenca communities were able to retain their communal lands and to continue their agricultural way of life into the present. Others migrated for wage-labor jobs on the coffee and banana plantations or in the mines. Because the Lenca have been heavily involved in Honduran society, much of traditional Lenca culture has been lost through the process of acculturation.


The most common settlement pattern is a regional center surrounded by small conglomerations of people. Most Lenca live in the surrounding countryside, where they can be close to their fields. They make trips to town on special occasions such as fiestas or going to market.

Traditional houses have walls constructed of adobe and thatched roofs of straw or grass. These dwellings have one main room, and one wall is set back into the structure to allow for a covered porch. Not all houses are built in the traditional manner, however; it is not uncommon for a house to be built of bricks or wood and to have a tile or galvanized-tin roof.


The central component of subsistence is the production of maize, beans, and squashes. These crops are raised together on small plots (milpas). Traditional implements such as the hoe, machete, and digging stick are utilized to cultivate crops in the milpa. Other crops that are grown to supplement the Lenca diet include, wheat, bananas, sugarcane, yucca, chilies, and oranges. These crops are raised on ejido lands: officially, the land is owned by the community, but plots are assigned to individuals, who farm the land as if it were their own.

A smaller portion of time is devoted to hunting and fishing. Men hunt for deer or jaguars with their bows and arrows. The Lenca have a unique way of fishing. They first dam up a stream or river with stones, leaving an opening where water can still flow through. They then place a net over the opening and place poisonous barbasco vines in the river upstream. The poison from the vine kills the fish, and they are then caught in the net.

The Lenca also make use of a number of domesticated animals. Dogs, chickens, pigs, ducks, and turkeys are commonly owned. Horses, mules, and cows are rarer possessions but are valued very highly. Horses and mules are important for transportation, and cows are prized for their milk, which is given to infants.

The Lenca make a number of objects for their own use. Basketry and pottery are important industries at the village level. Using pine needles or a type of cane, they make many types of baskets. By employing various organic dyes they decorate the baskets with colorful patterns. Pottery is made by coiling strands of clay into jugs and bowls. These are then fired in kilns that are built into the ground.

Another important manufactured good is cordage. Fibers from the maguey plant are spun into long strands of cord by two individuals standing 9 to 27 meters apart. These cords are used for construction purposes and are often traded for other goods.

Also, the Lenca produce candles for use in their homes and in the churches. The berries of the weed Mirica cerifera are picked, crushed, and boiled. The residue from this process is then placed into candle molds and left to cool.

Marriage and Family

Marriage usually occurs between the ages of 12 and 14 for females and between the ages of 14 and 18 for males. Although marriage is often prearranged by the parents of the children, this is not always the case. Often, the bride goes to live with the parents of the groom and the groom goes to live with the parents of the bride for a trial period before the marriage is finalized. In most cases, newly married couples move in with the parents of the bride until it is possible for them to maintain their own household. For this reason, nuclear households are the most common form of household, with some instances of matrifocal extended-family households.

Because land is held communally, there are few substantial possessions to be passed on to children; however, houses and farming implements are often inherited by the oldest son.

Sociopolitical Organization

The sociopolitical organization of the Lenca is that of a Latin American civil-religious hierarchy. Historically, each town was an autonomous unit, and, for this reason, each town presently has its own complement of governing officials. The most important function of the civil side of the hierarchy, beyond the day-to-day governance of the town, is the allotment of ejido lands. This is done by either the mayor or the group of governing elders.

The most important position to be held on the religious side of the hierarchy is that of mayordomo. This office is held by a married couple. The husband is called the mayordomo, but his wife must carry out her obligations as well. They are responsible for taking care of church affairs for a period of one year. Their most important duty is to sponsor the festivals that are held annually to venerate the patron saint of the town. Mayordomos finance these festivals with their own personal funds. Much status and prestige is conferred upon those who fill this office.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The religious beliefs of the Lenca are a combination of traditional beliefs and the teachings of the Catholic church. Traditionally, the Lenca believe in a direct link between the spiritual and the natural. Spirits and dioses (gods) abound in the Lenca cosmology and must be carefully dealt with.

From the Catholic church, the Lenca have taken the concepts of an overarching creator God, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. The Catholic saints have been combined with the traditional spirits and are worshiped as household deities.

As the Catholic church has moved closer and closer to orthodoxy in Latin America, traditional Lenca beliefs have been harder and harder to find. This is a function of both a small-scale return to orthodoxy and an attempt to take traditional beliefs underground.

The Lenca maintain a multitude of ceremonies and rituals derived from both Catholic and traditional practices. The most sacred day of the year is the day on which the patron saint of the town is carried through the streets. This day is marked by a great festival and worship of the saints in the streets.

There are no trained medical personnel in rural areas. In those areas where medical professionals do exist, many people distrust them and remain under the care of traditional healers. Curing is carried out by pharmacists, curanderos (traditional curers), and midwives. A popular method of treatment is traditional herbal therapy.

When a person dies, mourners hold a feast during which large amounts of chicha, a fermented maize beverage, are consumed. The drinking and mourning often go on for nine days.


Chapín, Mac (1991). "Población indígena de El Salvador." Mesoamerica 21:1-40.

Chapman, Anne (1985). Los hijos del Copal y la Candela: Ritos agraria y tradición oral de los lencas de Honduras. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Chapman, Anne (1986). Los hijos del Copal y la Candela: Tradición católica de los lencas de Honduras. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico.

Herranz Herranz, Atanasio (1987). "El lenca de Honduras: Una lengua moribunda." Mesoamerica 14:429-444.

Stone, Doris (1948). "The Northern Highland Tribes: The Lenca." In Handbook of South American Indians. Vol 4, edited by Julian H. Steward. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.

Weeks, John M., and Nancy J. Black (1992). "Notes on the Ethnopharmacology of the Lenca Indians of Western Honduras and Eastern El Salvador." Mexicon 14(4): 71-74.


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