Honduras's greatest treasure may well be the ethnic diversity of its people. Eight different ethnic groups share the Honduran territory. This page aims to tell the story of each group and paint a picture of the challenges each group faces today.
By the time the first Spanish explorers arrived in the early XVI century, all of what today is Honduran was already populated. At the time, the Honduran territory was, culturally and ethnically, split in two areas:
- Mesoamerica, a cultural region covering central México and Guatemala, extending south to Guatemala and western Honduras.
- Macro-Chibcha, a cultural area originating in north of South America and reaching as far as north as Nicaragua and eastern Honduras.
Anthropologist Paul Kirchhoff has defined the boundary between the Mesoamerican and the Macro-Chibcha cultural families as starting at Trujillo, on the Atlántic coast of Honduras, and running south towards the Gulf of Fonseca, in the Pacific coast, then south-east towards the Nicaraguan lakes and the Nicoya Península.
The split can still be seen today in the differences between the archeological remains left by the Mesoamericans and Macro-chibchas, and in the languages and physical characteristics of the remaining Honduran natives.
The map below shows the territories belonging to the different native groups in the XVI century. There is no accurate data to estimate how many natives lived in Honduras then - some anthropologists estimate it may have been as few as 300,000, while others believe it coud have been as many as 1,000,000.
Map by ThisIsHonduras
Social structure of the native Honduran people
Depending on their complexity, the native pre-Columbian Honduran groups could be classified into three groups:
Tribal groups: Relatively small populations, with a simple social structure, and shared or communal ownership of land and resources. They used primitive "slash and burn" agriculture methods, which are still used today by the Pech, Tawahkas, and Miskitu.
Cacicazgos: Larger and more complex social groups, using more land, and with a more clear leadership structure. They were organized well enough to allow for divison of labour, including agriculture, trading, crafts, and warfare duties. Authority in cacicazgos was centered in a single individual, called cacique, who would have a managerial role in deciding how to distribute ownership of the land and other agricultural resouces, as well as a military leadership role during times of war, and also a religious leader role. Cacicazcos practiced slavery, as a result of war. They also used more specialized agricultural methods than the tribal groups. The pre-Columbian Lenca peoples were organized into caciczagos.
Kingdoms: These had the largest populations and used more extensive areas of land for agriculture, using more advanced methods. They also had a more structured social division, splitting the population into clearly defined social classes depending on activity, each dedicated exclusively to either, agriculture, art, warfare, or religion. The only native Honduran people to reach this level of social complexity were the Maya, in western Honduras.
Generally speaking, the Mesoamerican groups in the western half of pre-Columbian Honduras was more advanced than the Macro-Chibchas in the East. The former had the benefit of influence from the Aztecs, Olmecs, and Mayas, and so were more advanced, had more complex social structures, constructed more spectacular cities and settlements, traded and communicated with neighbouring gropus; whilst the latter had simpler social structures, often lived in isolation, and used more primitive forms of agriculture.
Not long after the Spanish began exploring Honduras and the rest of Central America, the process of conquest and colonnisation started. The longest-lasting effect this has had on the Honduran native population is a radical change in their numbers, as well as in the extent and location of their territories. Compare the map in the previous section with the one below.
Map by ThisIsHonduras
Today, the dominant ethnic group in Honduas are the mestizo - people of mixed native and European (mostly Spanish) ascent. Mestizos account for over 93% of the population of Honduras. According to the 2001 national census, the 7 minority ethnic groups contributed nearly half a million members to the whole of the Honduran family:
The areas that are not marked for a specific group in the map above are not the be interpreted as being un-populated - it simply means that the dominant ethnic group in those areas are the mestizo.
To see a more complete map of Honduras, showing major towns and cities, and the road network connecting them, visit our Honduran geography page.
Photo by Anne Chapman (pending approval for use by ThisIsHonduras)
Photo by Gianluca Di Santo, from www.whitetara.org
History: The Lenca were the largest native group before the Spanish conquest. Within the larger ethnic group, there were three subgroups: Cares, Cerquines, Potones, and Lenca (the name of this last subgroup was adopted by the Spanish to designate the group overall and has been used ever since)
The Lenca were one of the few nateive groups that organised a resistance to the Spanish invaders, lead by a cacique named Lempira. You can learn more about Lempira's story in our Honduran history page.
Population: Approximately 100,000, in approximately 2,500 towns and villages.
Area: Mountains of southwest Honduras, in the departamentos of Lempira, Intibucá, La Paz, Santa Bárbara, and Francisco Morazán. Their territory extends south, across the national border, into El Salvador.
Language: The original language (known as "Lenca" in some communities, but also as "Popoluca" in others) was lost by the end of the XIX century. All contempary Lenca speak Spanish, but their accent and entonation are different to those of other ethnic groups in the country.
Social structure: Towns and villages, with single family dwellings.
Customs/traditions: Religion is a mixture of Catholic and pre-Columbian traditions.
Economy: Small-scale agriculture (corn, beans, potatos, various fruits and vegetables, and coffee)
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Origin and history: The Tolupán people's territory originally covered a large extent of the northern coast of Honduras, from the Ulúa river to Trujillo in the east, and extended inland to the modern boundaries of departmentos of Olancho, Comayagua, and Francisco Morazán. They were forced to leave their land and seek refuge further inland to escape the Spanish conquest during the XVI century and then later the slave trade.
The Tolupán have also been know as "Xicaques" or "Jicaques", but these are apparently names used by Mexican natives to describe them, not their own.
Population: Approximately 20,000, in 28 tribal groups.
Area: North-central mountains of Honduras; departamentos of Yoro and northern Francisco Morazán. The best-known communities are on and around a mountain range called Montaña de la Flor.
Language: Only a communities still use the Tol language, but all Tolupán people speak Spanish. Some anthropologists and linguists, including Dr. Anne Chapman, estimate that the Tol language is 5,000 years old.
Social structure: Families grouped into small hamlets and villages, lead by elders and shamans. Originally they were lead by caciques. Like in Tawahkas and Pech communities, each house can hold more than one family.
Customs/traditions: Much of the original reiligion and customs have been lost, but some villages still practice their old rituals for burying dead relatives and some still rely on their local shaman for healing and medicine. A few Tolupán still use their traditional attire, which is a simple type of knee-length robe with a belt around the waist. Traditionally, they do not use any type of footwear.
Economy: Small-scale agriculture (maize, beans, squash, plantains, potatoes), using simple hand tools and horses and mules to carry materials. The Tolupán are one of the few native peoples in Honduras that have developed a good understanding of keeping bees and harvesting their honey.
Origin and history: Most anthropologists agree that the Chortí (also known as Maya-Chortí) are descendants of the Maya that built Copán and other Maya cities in Honduras and Guatemala between the V and IX centuries. Anthropologists and archeologists have studied modern Chortí language and used it as a tool that has proved invaluable in their effort to descypher Maya petroglyphs. To learn more about the Maya culture and their legacy, visit our page about the Maya civilization or our page about the Maya ruins at Copán.
Population: 2,500 - 10,000 (estimates vary by source)
Area: Western Honduras and eastern Guatemala.
Language: The Chortí in Honduras speak mainly Spanish; only in a handful of villages is the original Chortí (or Chol) language still spoken. The greatest concentration of Chortí speakers is found in Guatemala.
Social structure: Families grouped in towns villages.
Customs/traditions: Religion is a mixture of Catholic and pre-Columbian traditons. The Maya-Chortí use a mixture of Christian and Maya iconography and still carry out religious rituals at the ruins of Maya ceremonial sites in Guatemala and Honduras.
Economy: Small-scale agriculture (maize, beans, vegetables)
Photo by Juan Bendeck
Photo by Juan Bendeck
Origin and history: The Garífuna originated from the mixture of two different ethnic groups: a) the Caliponan of the Lesser Antilles (who were themselves a mixture of the Caribs and the Arawaks), and b) African natives that had been kidnapped from western Africa
The story of the Garífuna people starts in the island of Saint Vincent, were in 1635 two Spanish slave ships loaded with African slaves ran aground (apparently as part of a plan regularly implemented by the Caliponan to mislead sailors to wreck their ships and steal their cargo) on the island. The newly freed slaves stayed on the island and began to mix with the Caliponan, as well as receiving population influx from immigrants displaced by colonnization of other islands in the region. The new ethnic group, called "Garífuna", prospered and grew to the point were they rivaled the Caliponan, forcing them to move to the western part of Saint Vincent.
In the XVIII century, France and England were fighting for dominance of the Caribbean, and so the French decided to support the Caliponan in Saint Vincent as part of an effort to control the island. Given their history, the Garífuna distrusted any Europeans and resisted any intervention from either French or English, so France's effort to control the island failed. The Garífuna did, however, adopt French names and acquired a taste for wine. Eventually, the Garífuna did pick a side and actively assisted the French in their war against England, in which they proved to be fierce and effective warriors. In the end, the French-Garífuna alliance lost. The Garífuna were allowed to stay in English controlled islands, but in 1797 the English decided to relocate 2,200 of them to The Bay Islands and northern coast of Honduras. Later that year they moved to the northern coast of Honduras and, eventually, to Guatemala and Belize.
To learn more about the Garífuna people's history and culture directly from them, visit www.garifuna.com
Population: Approximately 98,000 (in Honduras, as many as 200,000 in Guatemala and Belize)
Area: Caribbean cost of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua; also Bay Islands of Honduras.
Language: Igñeri - a unique combination of Arawak, French, Suahili, and Bantu. Also Spanish and English.
Social structure: In Garífuna society, women tend to have a more dominant role in family relations and land and housing ownership and duties in raising and educating children can be shared amongst members of the larger family. However, this is changing with externeral cultural influence, mainly from mestizo Hondurans.
Customs/traditions: The Garífuna practice a religion called Dugu - a combination of their original religions from western Africa with that of their Caribbean ancestors, also with some elements adopted from Catholic religion. The Garífuna believe that the spirits of their dead relatives and other supernatural entities can possess the body of a living person, influence their dreams, and cause illness. Rituals involving altered states of conciusness to commnicate with the dead and to cure diseases are an important part of Garífuna religion.
Garífuna music and dance still show strong influence from West-African and Caribbean cultures. This has made the Garífuna popular, as Honduran and Latinamerican music have openened spaces for native music and rythms.
Economy: Small-scale agriculture, fishing, laboring in banana plantations, and working overseas as merchant mariners.
Photo from "Honduras This Week"
Photo from "La Tribuna"
Origin and history: Anthropologists believe the Pech have their roots in the Chibcha peoples of Southamerica and are descendants of a group that migrated to Centralamerica approximately 3,000 years ago. The Pech language is believed to be a derivative of the Macro-Chibcha language family of Southamerica. Originally the Pech territory covered part of the northern coastal areas of Honduras, but the Spanish colonnialists forced them to relocate further south. The Pech have resisted cultural asimilation by the mestizo and still retain traditional foods and musical instruments.
Population: Approximately 2,000, in 10 tribes.
Area: North-central Honduras; north-east of departamento Olancho, south-east departamento Colón, and western departamento Gracias a Dios.
Language: Pech and Spanish. The Pech have made a great effort to keep their native language alive and have managed to stablish local schools were it is taught to young children. The word "Pech" itself means "People", which is what they call themselves.
Social structure: The basis of Pech society is the extended family. Women have traditionally played roles of authority as healers and shamans, although external cultural influences have changed this. Tribal councils and elder councils are still held.
Economy: Small-scale agriculture (slash and burn method; cassava, corn, beans), fishing, small-scale gold prospecting.
Photo by Kendra McSweeney
Origin and history: The Tawahka once were one of the largest native peoples in Honduras, with their territory extending from the north coast of the country, at the mouth of the Patuca river, to central Nicaragua. Today they are the smallest and most fragile ethnic group in Honduras.
Population: Approximately 1,000 (as many as 13,000 in Nicaragua). Only seven small Tawahka communites remain in Honduras.
Area: Central rainforest of north-western Honduras
Language: Their native language is Twanka. They also speak Miskitu, Pech, and Spanish.
Customs/traditions: The Tawahka have strong cultural ties with the Miskitu. Their languages share common roots in the Macro-Chibcha languages of South America. The original Tawahka religion is nearly completely lost, as most Tawahka converted to Catholicism during or after the Spanish conquest. The Tawhaka are quite ecologically concious - their method of agriculture provides enough food without permanently damaging the environment.
Economy: Small-scale agriculture - corn, beans, plantains, bananas, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, and coffee. The Tawahka are also hunters, still using bows and arrows, spears and simple firearms to hunt wild animals in the jungle. They keep pigs, chickens, ducks and cattle. Tawahka women help the men with agriculture and fishing. The Tawahka rely heavily on the Patuca river as a source of food as well as their only means of communication - there are nearly no roads, so they travel on pipantes (long, narrow boats carved out of a single treetrunk).
Photo from "La Tribuna"
Photo by Mike Vickers
Photo by Mike Vickers
Photo by Mike Vickers
Photo by Mike Vickers
Origin and history:
Area: The Miskitu people's territory covers a large extension of eastern Honduras known as "La Mosquitia", which includes the easternmost portion of the Caribbean Coast (hence the English name "Mosquito Coast"), the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, and also part of northeastern Nicaragua.
Language: Miskitu, as well as Spanish and some English
Social structure: Small villages with single-family dwellings
Economy: Small-scale agriculture, fishing, diving.
Photo by Gina Villatoro
Origin and history: The mestizo group is the result of the mixing of Spanish and other European immigrants with Centralamerican natives, beginning in the XV century. Essentially, any Honduran whose ethnic background is an undeterminate mix of European and native Latin-american ancestry is a mestizo. Put another way, anyone who is neither ethnically nor culturally Garífuna, Tawahka, Pech, Tolupán, Miskitu, or Chortí, is by default a mestizo. Mestizos are also known by anthropologists as "ladinos".
The mestizo are today the dominant ethnic group in Honduras, having near exclusive control of land, financial resources, industry, agriculture, government, and politics in the country. Either due to lack of understanding and/or plain indiference, the mestizo are responsible for marginalisation of all other ethnic groups in Honduras.
The mestizo do not seem to have a sense of belonging to an ethnic group as such and usually don't refer to themselves as "mestizos" or "ladinos" - they simply call themselves "Hondurans", perhaps underestimating the importance of the ethnic diversity of the country.
Population: Approximately 7.5 million.
Area: Any part of Honduras not occuppied by other minority ethnic groups.
Language: Spanish. Those with enough resources to attend bilingual schools will choose to learn English as a second language (a few will choose French).
Social structure: Based on the nuclear family structure, modelled after European or Northamerican social traditions.
Customs/traditions: Combination of Latinamerican (Spanish and native) customs with increasing influence of Northamerican customs. Contemporary mestizo culture, religion, and traditions are the main focus of our People and Culture page.
Economy: As the dominant ethnic group, the mestizo are the main driving force behind government, industry, and economy in Honduras. To learn more about this, take a quick look at our page on Honduran economy.
- Rivas, Ramón D. Pueblos Indígenas y Garífuna de Honduras. Tegucigalpa: Editorial Guaymuras, 2004.
- Carías, Marcos. De la patria del criollo a la patria compartida. Tegucigalpa: Ediciones Subirana, 2005.
- www.garifuna.com, accessed April 2013, <www.garifuna.com>
- Gehlen Mission Honduras, Le Mars, accessed April 2013, <www.gehlenmissionhonduras.org/Presentations/MH%20Jan%2009%20Herb%20Kuehne%20Tolupan.htm>
- Secretaría de Estado en los Despachos de Pueblos Indígnas y Afrohondureños, Tegucigalpa, accessed 2013, <www.sedinafroh.gob.hn>