Pre-Columbian Honduras.

*Pre-Columbian definition: “relating to the history and cultures of the Americas before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492.”

Mayan Heritage.

Pre-Columbian Honduras was populated by a complex mixture of indigenous peoples who stemmed from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds and linguistic chapters. The most advanced and notable of these were related to the Maya of the Yucatán peninsula and what is now Guatemala. Mayan civilization reached western Honduras in the fifth century A.D., most likely having spread out from the lowland Mayan strongholds in Guatemala’s Petén region. The Maya spread rapidly throughout the Río Motagua Valley, centering their control on the major ceremonial center of Copán, near the present-day town of Santa Rosa de Copán. For three and a half centuries, the Maya developed the city, converting it into one of the principal centers of their culture. At one point, Copán was the leading center for both astronomical studies (for which the Maya were impressively advanced) and art. One of the longest Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions ever discovered was found at Copán. The Maya also established extensive trade networks spanning as far as central Mexico.

Maya Warrior.

Then, at the height of the Mayan civilization, Copán was seemingly abandoned. The last dated hieroglyph in Copán is placed at 800 A.D. Much of the population evidently remained in the area after that, but the educated class: the priests and rulers who built the temples, inscribed the glyphs, and developed the astronomy and mathematics – suddenly vanished. Copán fell into ruin, and the descendants of the Maya who remained had no memory of the meanings of the inscriptions or of the reasons for the sudden fall. This is a most mysterious chapter of Honduran and Mayan history.

Following the period of Mayan dominance, the area that would eventually comprise Honduras was occupied by a multiplicity of indigenous peoples. Indigenous groups related to the Toltec of central Mexico migrated from the northwest into parts of what became western and southern Honduras. Most notable were the Toltec-speaking Chorotega, who established themselves near the present-day city of Choluteca. Later enclaves of Nahua-speaking peoples, such as the Pipil, whose language was related to that of the Aztec, established themselves at various locations from the Caribbean coast to the Golfo de Fonseca on the Pacific coast.

Toltec Peoples.

Whilst groups related to indigenous peoples of Mexico moved into western and southern Honduras, other peoples with languages related to those of the Chibcha of Colombia were establishing themselves in areas that became northeastern Honduras. Most prominent among these were the Ulva and Paya speakers. Along the Caribbean coast, a variety of groups settled. Most important were the Sumu, who were also located in Nicaragua, and the Jicaque, whose language family has been a source of debate amongst scholars. Finally, in parts of what is now west-central Honduras were the Lenca, who also were believed to have migrated north from Colombia but whose language shows little relation to any other indigenous group.

Although divided into numerous distinct and frequently hostile groups, the indigenous inhabitants of preconquest Honduras (before the early 1500s) carried on considerable trade with other parts of their immediate region as well as with areas as far away as Panama and Mexico. Although it appears that no major cities were in existence at the time of the conquest, the total population was nevertheless fairly high. Estimates range of up to 2 million, although the actual figure was probably closer to 500,000.

Certain cultures, particularly the Maya people, attained astonishing knowledge in diverse fields – especially within astronomy and mathematics.

They became invested in large-scale agriculture (bean, cocoa, chili pepper, etc.) and constructed large irrigation systems which guaranteed production for such numerous populations. The Maya also developed techniques of wonderful sophistication in fabrics and ceramics, thus developing an intense and varied trade. As previously stated, astronomy and mathematics were strongpoints in addition to architecture and sculpture, which were simultaneously deployed in their construction of big cities – such as Copan.

The following gallery shows: Mayan ceramics, traditional Maya dwelling, a modern Maya lady outside her house, Maya sculpture at Copan and a view of Copan ruins.

Other Cultures.

In the northwestern section of Honduras, villages with Tolteca influences predominated, such as the following:

  • The Náhuatl, who lived in the valley of Naco and Trujillo.
  • The Ch’orti’ people were located in Cortés, Copan and Ocotepeque.
  • The Lencas, who extended throughout the departments of Santa Bárbara, Lempira, Intibucá, La Paz, Comayagua, Francisco Morazan and Valle as well as part of what comprises the present-day territory of neighboring El Salvador.

The rest of Honduran territory was, and still is (despite the indigenous way of life being under huge threat today), inhabited by villages of nomadic and semi-nomadic cultures, governed via the relations of communal production. The largest of these groups are the following:

The Lenca.

Modern day Lenca dressed traditionally.

The largest population left behind after the demise of the Maya, was that of the Lencas – who, when the Spanish arrived, were the most widespread and organised amongst the native peoples of Honduras. They lived in populations of considerable size, with an average of 350 houses and over 500 inhabitants. Although there exist many controversies on the descendants and the origin of the Lencas, its is widely accepted and agreed that they are the direct rests heirs of the Mayas; a people who did not follow the mass exodus which gave end to the ancient Maya empire. On the arrival of the Spaniards, the Lenca were well established in the territory which today comprises the Republics of El Salvador and Honduras. Please see:

Causes, which are somehow still unknown to this day, caused the abandonment and destruction of Copan and other Mayan cities, thus left as ruins during the era of Spanish conquest. Hunger, plagues and internal warfare have been proposed by historians as the causes of this great abandonment.


Information obtained from reports submitted to the US library of congress.

Published by Ben Anson

Young writer with a passion for Latin American and Caribbean affairs.

2 thoughts on “Pre-Columbian Honduras.

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