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Lacandon [archive]

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Lacandon

The Lacandon are a small group of Mayan Indians, today numbering about 500 individuals, who live in the Lacandon jungle area of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. They refer to themselves as the ?Hach Winik?, or ?True People?. Until recent decades, they lived in isolation from the rest of Mexican society, and preserved many aspects of pre-Hispanic Mayan culture that had disappeared elsewhere. In recent decades, they have become increasingly assimilated into modern Mexican society.

It is believed that the Lacandon are descended from Mayan of the Yucatan peninsula who fled into the jungle during the 17th century to escape the Spanish. There was limited contact with outsiders over the next two centuries. They came to the attention of ethnologists around the turn of the century. There are in fact two distinct groups of Lacandon, with distinct cultural characteristics. The larger northern group is peaceful and avoids conflict at all costs, while the southern group has tended to be more confrontational and in the past was inclined towards violence. Traditionally, the Lacandon have lived off of a mixture of hunting and slash-and-burn agriculture. They hunted with bow-and-arrow, catching game such as deer, monkeys, and birds. Their primary crop, like most Mayans, was corn. Due to Lacandon hunting and farming methods and their very low population, there was little negative effect on the rainforest ecology.

Their agriculture is specially adapted to the rainforest. They first plant root crops to hold in the soil, then follow it with corn and other crops. By avoiding monoculture, the high variety of crops reduces losses from pests and diseases, as well as attracting animals and thereby improving hunting prospects. By these measures and by intensive weeding, they are able to plant crops for 5 years in a row, as opposed to the mere single year achieved by non-Lacandon in the same ecology. After 5 years, they plant the plot with harvestable tree crops. Eventually native forest takes over again, and many years later the plot's soil will have recovered and can again be cleared for crops.

Traditionally, the Lacandon lived in dispersed groups of several households. Each group of households was separated by long distances, which took several days of walking through the jungleto get there. Although they had no official leaders, there were men respected for their wisdom and prestige in religion and other matters. In recent years, they have become grouped into more centralized communities.

Until recent decades, all Lacandon continued to follow a form of the pre-Christian Mayan religion. Each small group had a simple thatch temple, in which they made offerings of incense or food to the gods, using small clay incense burners. Most rituals involved the offering and consumption of an alcoholic drink called balche. The temple also served as a center of community social life. These beliefs and practices survive today among a minority of the Lacandon.

The Lacandon have traditionally believed in two major groups of gods- the "heavenly gods" that dwell in the sky, and the "earthly gods" that dwell underground. Nearby Classic Mayan ruins, such as the large site at Yaxchilan, were considered homes of the heavenly gods. Many of the major Lacandon gods were identified with pre-Conquest Mayan gods. These included Hachakyum (the pre-Conquest Itzamna), the creator of animals, plants and humans; K'akoch (Hunab Ku), the distant creator god; Sukunkyum, the god of the underworld and of the sun and the moon; and Mensabak (Yum Chac), the god of rain. Oddly enough, some pagan Lacandon accept the divinity of Jesus Christ. They simply believe that he is a minor diety, falling under Akyantho, the god of foreigners. Akyantho has light skin, Western clothes, and is responsible for things of non-Mayan origin.

Life has changed considerably for the Lacandon during recent decades. During the 1960's and 70's, thousands of highland Mayan and mestizo peasants, hungry for land, migrated into the Lacandon forest. The forest and its wildlife were severely decimated. Other outside influences came with this development, and in 1971, the Mexican government gave the Lacandon a percentage of the profits from logging in the jungle, thereby giving them the money to purchase outside goods and hire settlers to work their fields. Today the Lacandon have adopted many aspects of modern Mexican culture. Many drive cars or use other modern technologies, live in tin-roofed houses, and attend schools. Many younger men prefer modern clothes. Most have been converted to Seventh-Day Adventism or other Christian denominations. Only a minority, concentrated in the more traditional northern settlement at Laja, practice the old religion. Today the Lacandon can be seen at the Mayan ruins of Palenque, wearing traditional costumes and selling their traditional hunting weapons to tourists. In fact, most of the Lacandons hunt with modern weapons, and hunt the game that remains in the Lacandon forest which has been badly decimated by the hundreds of thousands of settlers who now live in the region.

Sources

: Boremanse, Didier. Hach Winik: The Lacandon Maya of Chiapas, Southern Mexico. Albany, NY: Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, University at Albany, 1998.

Denslow, Julie Sloan and Christine Padoch. People of the Tropical Rainforest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

LACANDON MAYA: The Gods. HACH WINIK HOME PAGE. http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/3134/lacgods.html. October 14, 2003.

HACH WINIK HOME PAGE: A web site for the Lacandon Maya communities http://www.geocities.com/RainForest/3134/

Author: Michael D. Snell-Feikema mdfeikema@yahoo.com

Additional Reading

 Lacandon Language
 Lacandon Words
 Mexico Indian Tribes

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