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Past: The Lacandon live in three groups spread over a territory of about 10,000 square miles in the tropical rain forest on the Mexican/Guatemalan border, in the Usumacinta River drainage. The northern group is enclosed by the Rio Santo Domingo and Rio Santa Cruz, north of the Arroyo Jetha. The Cedro-Lacanha group lives along the Cedro and Lacanha rivers and the Jatate group lives along the Jatate and Lower Azul rivers. It is very rich and fertile due to the Chiapas forest having so many rivers and lakes. The terrain is divided by parallel escarpments of tertiary limestone lying north-west-southeast. Between each escarpment are valleys dominated by a major river. The rivers run from northwest to southeast until they join the Lacantun River, which flows at right angles to the main geological structure and eventually heading towards the Gulf of Mexico. The Lacandon forest is one of two primary Pleistocene refuges for Mexican tropical rain forest in which the climate is warm and humid, with the median annual temperature averaging above 22°C and the coolest month averaging above 18°C. The median annual precipitation is over 3000 mm, with a summer rainy season which experiences monsoons. The vegetation consists of subtropical semi-deciduous moist forest, savanna, and wetlands.

Present: Today the Lacandon consist of about 700 individuals who live in the Lacandon jungle area of the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The village of Naha lies at the lake with the same name, approximately 50 kilometres west of the Usamacinta River and 55 kilometres east of the regional capital Ocosingo. The village has about 200 inhabitants. The village of Mensäbäk lies at the lake with the same name at the foot of the Sierra Piedron at an altitude of 550 meters. This is the smallest settlement of the Lacandon. The rivers and lakes in the direct surroundings of the village provide in an excellent supply of food. Lacanha Chansayab lies at the Lacanha river at an altitude of 250 meter. The village is located 50 kilometres west of the Usamacinta river and 115 kilometres southeast of Ocosingo. The Sierra Cojolita lies in the east. This is the largest community of Lacandon and has about 500 inhabitants.


Natural Resources:

Past: The Lacandon are surrounded by rivers in which they fish and forests and hills which allow them to grow various crops. Hunting is also a year-round event, but the Lacandon only kill what they and their families can eat, because to waste meat means that the next time the game will either not appear for the hunter or not die when it is shot. The tropical rain forests are species-rich with more than 1500 species of trees, 4000 species of plants and 25% of all animal species native to the area. The most common trees in the rainforest are the breadfruit tree, the ceiba, mahogany and the sapodilla. The Chicozapote tree which was native to the Lacandon lands brought a number of Chicleros who sought the gum that it bared.

Present: Since the1970’s, anywhere from 40 to 70% has been destroyed as a result of water pollution, crop zone clearing, logging operations, cattle-ranching, road building and oil exploration. However, there are still more than 3000 species of vascular plants and 1500 species of trees in the Lacandon area.  The Lacandon forest contains important reserves of timber, such as Calophyllum brasiliense rekoi, Cedrela odorata, Cordia Dialium guianense, Lonchocarpus castilloi, Swietenia macrophylla, Tabebuia guayacan and Trema micranthum. Other species of economic importance are Manilkara zapota, the "sapodilla" tree from which chicle gum is extracted. Cymbopetalum penduliflorum flowers are used among the Maya Amerindians for flavoring and medicine and species that bear edible fruits, such as Manilkara zapota, Pimenta dioica, Poulsenia armata, Pouteria mammosum and many others. Several species of palms like the Geonoma oxycarpa and Scheelea liebmannii are used by the local inhabitants for roofing. Additionally, seeds, seedlings and leaves of some small palms called "xate" are being removed from the forest by the millions and with increasing frequency. They are dispatched from peripheral cities by refrigerated truck to Texas where they are commercialized


Subsistence Patterns:

Past: Traditionally, the Lacandon practice a sustainable form of swidden or slash-and-burn horticulture where they transform a small areas of natural forest into harvestable forest by cutting down the trees and brush and burning them to the ground. The Lacandon system rotates milpa and fallowed areas while intercropping to maintain nutrient balance in the soil. 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. In January, the Lacandon begin clearing the undergrowth for a new field to be planted in April or May. It is also the time to put in the winter crop of corn. Trees are felled in the new fields from February through April, and burning and planting are done as soon as the fields are dry enough. Winter corn is ready to double over in January to assure final drying of the ears and to protect them from the rain of the rainy season, and can be harvested anytime thereafter through the month of October, when it is necessary to begin clearing again for the next winter crop. Summer corn is ready in September and is harvested at the end of the year, also in time for the winter crop to be put in. Lacandon women plant and harvest secondary crops: squash, beans, tomatoes, root crops, onions and chayotes. The northern group also plants large tobacco fields, both for trade and for their own use in rolling cigars.

Present: Since the 1970's, thousands of highland Mayan and Mestizo peasants, hungry for land, migrated into the Lacandon forest.  The forest and its wildlife, as well as the Lacandon traditional way of farming and hunting, were decimated. However, the 700 or so Lacandon that remain in the region still practice the highly diverse, long-term system of food production that showed sustained use of the tropical forest ecosystem. These techniques of farming allow the forest to regenerate without significant loss. Aspects of the Lacandon Maya subsistence and forest-management systems are being examined and applied by some institutions to demonstrate that the practices that serve them and served the Classic Maya are helpful for the modern development of sustained-yield use of tropical forest ecosystems. Their respect for the land and independence has allowed the Lacandon to survive until recently without assistance from the outside world for their daily needs. Recently, encroaching deforestation is making traditional hunting and agriculture impracticable.


Settlement Patterns:

Past: Historically, the Lacandon lived independently in small clans dispersed throughout the vast and unoccupied jungle. Each household occupies a one room house and usually consists of a man, his wives, and their unmarried children. It may sometimes include a married daughter and her husband or a widowed parent. Some households are isolated in a private clearing; others cluster together in one clearing. The clearings may be more than a day’s walk form one another, but the inhabitants visit each other and share the catch when they hunt and fish. The northern group forms a territorial unit in the sense that they visit each other, intermarry, trade and barter. Members of the Cedro-Lacanha group live close together and even though only 8 people are in the Jatate group, they live quite widely separated because they have lacked women in past years and each man fears losing his wife to another man.

Present: In recent years, they have become grouped into more centralized communities. 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. Younger Lacandon Maya are socially more active than members of the older generation. This can be seen in both their social networks and in the distribution of households within the community. Younger Lacandon in the village center live close to each other . As a trade-off for living closer to each other, younger Lacandon establish their households farther away from their milpas. This causes them to visit the milpa less frequently and to plant fewer crops in their fields.



Past: Through their encounters with the growing number of lumbermen, the Lacandon were able to trade their knowledge of the river systems and jungles for modern steel axes, knives and machetes. They abandoned stone axes yet continued to produce bows and arrows, which they made to interest traders rather than use. The formerly self-sufficient Lacandon discovered greater need for knives, ammunition, shotguns and flashlights. Bone needles were replaced by steel ones, wooden combs by plastic ones, hand woven cloth by cotton cloth and the grinding stone by the corn mill. They use modern steel axes, machetes for clearing the forest and cutting firewood. Planting is done with a sharp wooden stick.

Present: Today the Lacandon have adopted many aspects of modern Mexican culture.  Many drive cars or use other modern technologies, live in tin-roofed houses with piped water and electricity and attend schools. Many younger men prefer modern clothes. Also, most of the Lacandon now hunt with modern shotguns, in what remains of the Lacandon forest that has been badly decimated by the settlers who now live in the region. Fishing is done with an angling rod or spear. The making traditional weapons continues today, with bows and arrows in various sizes made for the tourists of the ruins of Palenque.  Television has also made its way into the villages. Nearly every Lacandon household owns a satellite dish, which funnels in 60 channels of Spanish and English programming.



Past: The economic life of the Lacandon turns on the nuclear household and what its harvests, catches and other productions yield. This economic system is part of a single cultural complex of interrelated, recurring cycles that integrate the natural and the supernatural. The northern Lacandon are the only ones that trade with the outside world. Buyers come for their tobacco and bows and arrows. They also sell fruit, eggs, and corn to travelers and nearby ranchers. These same people sell them cloth, sugar, salt, ammunition and large quantities of white sugarcane liquor. In the 1970s, the Mexican government began paying them for rights to log timber in their forests, bringing them into closer contact with the national economy. During the lumber and chicle exploitation, some agreed to work as guides in exchange for guns and ammunition.

Present: A burgeoning migrant population, accelerated degradation of the forest, and the pressures of modern western consumerism are having an undeniable impact on the Lacandon community. Young men are devoting more time to manufacturing souvenirs for the lucrative tourist market, and less time to traditional activities, such as swidden farming. The inhabitants produce maize, cacao, rice and other crops mostly for themselves or regional use. Only crops such as the jalapeño pepper represent a relatively important source of income for a few farmers, who can afford the high costs of intensive human labor and frequent applications of pesticides; these crops are shipped to Mexico City. In general, farmers invest their money in cattle, which are maintained in extensive grasslands at high environmental cost. Development has had a huge impact on the economic situation and social organization of the people of Mensäbäk. Road connections not only provided new goods and information but also new income opportunities, such as handcraft production for tourists. Government and NGOs provide further financial and material support, making Lacandon families increasingly independent of agriculture. Today the Lacandon can be seen at the Mayan ruins of Palenque, wearing traditional costumes and selling their traditional hunting weapons to tourists.


Kinship & Community Arrangements:

Past: Historically, the Lacandon lived independently in small clans dispersed throughout the vast and unoccupied jungle. They are mostly known for their long white tunics and long black hair. A household exists of the man, his wives, unmarried children, married daughters, son in laws and one of the grandparents if the other has died. The man is the head of the family. The parents and their small children live together in a home that consists of one room. Boys sleep in a separate hut, just like their older sisters. Mobility has always been very important, moving to another house occurred commonly. The most important reason for this was the shifting of the milpa. The kinship system is of a unilateral type with separate terms for mother’s brother that distinguishes him from father’s brother. Sex and relative age are stressed in ego’s generation. Parallel cousins are grouped with siblings, while cross cousins are grouped under one term which is applied also to mother’s father and to daughter’s children. The Lacandon are patrilineal and patrilocal. The father transmits the name of the phratry and clan to his sons. He also transmits the totemic name, the only vestige of a totemic system which survives. Women occupy an inferior position in the household and inherit nothing from the father. The largest social unit is the clan, consisting of a group of related families with the father as head of each family, the oldest being the head of the clan. They are polygamous, with a tendency to exogamy. Each man usually has no more than three wives. The women live together and share household duties. Marriage with outsiders is not permitted. Daughters are under the control of their fathers until they marry. Wife exchange takes place occasionally and divorce is allowed.

Present: Today the Lacandon still think mobility is very important, although several families live together in the mentioned communities. The average number of children in a household is decreasing. Young families have an average of 1,6 children, while their parents had an average of 3,8 children and their grandparents even 9,6 children.The Lacandon remain connected through intermarriage, shared traditions, religious beliefs and a common language. Story-telling has come to an end. As is the case in oral societies, story-telling serves to instruct and entertain. In Lacandon society, story-telling is typically the job of the patriarch. Instruction is now taken over by a state-run primary school, which teaches children about the world and everything Mexican in the language of the dominant Spanish culture. Forced settlements as well as missionary activities and increasing contact with outside communities has led younger Lacandon to adopt a lifestyle different from their parents. These differences can be seen in the social and economic spheres, where younger adults created a community by consciously choosing to live next to each other and farther away from their agricultural fields. Young Lacandon not only pay less attention to their agricultural fields, but also to the forest, which has ceased to be a central part of their life and living environment.


Political & Religious Organization:

Past: The head of the Lacandon family acts as chief and priest. The religious beliefs of the group are passed down by word of mouth from father to son. The ritual temples in which they made offerings to the gods, also served as centers for community activities and social life. The northern group, scattered over a large territory, lost all political or religious organization and system of leadership long ago. The Jatate and Cedro-Lacanha groups used to have leaders and priests, but their number is now so reduced that the system has collapsed. The Lacandon are not incorporated into the political system of Mexico. The three groups have little contact between each other so religious believes differ between them and with their diminishing numbers, a great deal of tradition has been lost. Since they have no shared community, traditions are kept alive through instructions from father to son. Although they have forgotten much of their religious practice and tradition, they seem to have much religious feeling and connection with the supernatural world. The Lacandon also believe that there are three heavens and an underworld. The uppermost heaven is Chembeku, the middle is Kakoch, the lowest is Hachakyum and the underworld is Yaralum. Some of the Lacandon of the Cedro-Lacanha group have been converted to Protestantism and call themselves Evangelistas. 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. The Lacandon worshiped these gods and goddesses in a small thatch hut set aside for religious worship at the edge of each village 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 Lacandon also made pilgrimages to ancient Maya cities to pray and to remove stone pebbles from the ruins for ritual purposes.

Present: Although they have no official leaders, there are men respected for their wisdom and prestige in religion and other matters. The diminishing size of the Lacandon has resulted in the loss of a number of religious traditions and rituals once practiced by the different groups and clans. Only a minority, concentrated in the more traditional northern settlement at Naha, practice the old religion in which the elder Lacandon continue to inspire the community with unique mythological stories, dream interpretations, rituals and agricultural principles that are purely Mayan. Gifts of incense, balche and ritual foods are presented to the gods through the lak-il k'uh, god pot, a clay incense burner. Each of these has an upturned face and is painted white with red dots and black stripes. The Lacandon center their ritual attention on the god pots because all offerings are transmitted to the gods through them. The god pots are neither believed to be actual gods nor considered accurate representations of the gods. Influenced by missionaries, many older Lacandon have abandoned their god-houses. Still, their experiences and models are heavily shaped by the aspect of Lacandon religion. Rather than abandoning the god-pots, most have buried their pots in sacred shrines and caves, often in combination with prayers. Although many things about daily life in Lacanha are uniquely Lacandon, their religion has not been practiced for may years. Tragically, important elders died in a yellow fever epidemic early in this century, disrupting the passing of tradition. The southern Lacandon, having become susceptible to missionaries and other outside influences, lost their traditional religious practices. Today the religion of the community of Lacanha is protestant evangelist. The faithful attend a small chapel to sing Baptist hymns translated into Lacandon Maya.  None of the younger informants have ever built a god-house. Although some of them participated in ceremonies, they grew up in an environment in which traditional Lacandon religion was already contested by missionary efforts. As a consequence, their relation to the Lacandon gods is largely restricted to knowing some of their names.


Life Cycle/ Childhood/ Marriage Patterns:

Past: Marriage: The Lacandon still regulates marriage to some extent in the northern group. Marriage outside the clan is much preferred. The marriage of brother and sister is strongly tabooed and severely punished by the gods. It is customary for a Lacandon to have at least two wives so a girl will often be promised at a early age. It is customary to give to a young boy an old widow as a first wife. When he is older and stronger he will look for a younger wife. Life Cycle: The Lacandon have lost all knowledge of the calendar and follow only the seasons, for which they have names and base their subsistence around. A woman is believed to have great healing powers throughout pregnancy during which time a husband is forbidden to make an arrow or kill a jaguar. If a child is to be born at night, delivery takes place in the house. Otherwise the woman goes to the forest near the house. Another woman helps deliver while the men pray continuously in the ceremonial hut. When a Lacandon dies, he is buried wearing his tunic and wrapped in his hammock. His head faces the sun. There are variations in beliefs about what happens after death. Some say the dead first have to pass time in the underworld suffering and then go to heaven while others say that for certain sins, the dead may be punished forever by working for Kisin at Yaralum, the underworld. Childhood: Small children play around the house, the girls with dolls and the boys with miniature bows and arrows, and both play with tops made from large acorns. Both sexes get their education in material culture and religious life by watching their parents, and help in the chores proper to each sex as they grow older. Girls will often be promised at a very early age to a man and will move in as soon as she can make tortillas. There is little bad behavior and scolding and corporal punishment are seldom seen.


The most common language spoken is Lacandon Mayan. Lacandon is a Yucatec dialect that further divides into mutually intelligible northern and southern regional varieties. Although the northern and southern sub-dialects are mutually intelligible, each Lacandon group considers the other's dialect as deficient, and at times, unintelligible. The Lacandon language is far closer than other Yucatec dialects to the original Classic Maya, simply because the Lacandon were not subject to centuries of political, cultural, religious, and linguistic domination by the Colonial Spaniards and the Mexican State. It is closely related to Yucatec Mayan. Cholan Mayan, the language of the inscriptions of ancient Maya cities, is a more distant relative. The close relationship between Lacandon Mayan and Yucatec Mayan suggests that the Lacandon, at one time, lived further north on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. Lacandon is one of some 30 Mayan languages.  Lacandon remains one of the least known of the Middle American languages. Today, there are approximately 700 Lacandon speakers, 350 of whom speak the northern dialect.