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The Lacandon Mayas

The excerpts below are from "The Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican Rain Forest" by Victor Perera and Robert D. Bruce, one of the definitive books about a small surviving community from the once mighty Mayan civilization.

The term "Lacandon" is used indiscriminately to refer to both the northern and the southern Lacandones, two of the groups that comprise the Peninsular Mayas — the Mayas that live on the Yucatán Peninsula and in the adjacent lowlands. Only the Lacandones escaped assimilation or extermination during the Spanish Conquest and the nationalizing influences that came later. The southern group remained culturally intact on the Lacanjá (or Chan Sayab) river, not far from the ruins of their ceremonial center, Yaxchilán; the northern group lived not far from the ruins of Palenque. Each speaks its own dialect of Peninsular Maya, the language of the region.

The origin of the word "Lacandon" is the Maya plural form äh akan-tun-oob, which derives from the agentive äh, meaning "the" or "they"; akan, "standing" or "set up"; and tun, "precious stone" or "stone idol(s)." Thus, the äh akantunoob were "those who set up (and worship) stone idols." The name was simply a term by which their Christianized Maya neighbors called them "stone worshippers" or the "pagans." The term also may — or may not — have implied or alluded to "masons" or "builders of temples."

In the beginning, at the time of the Conquest, the Lacandones were simply the Mayas. Eventually, the Spaniards began to distinguish between already dominated and Christianized Maya groups and others — among them the ancestors of the present-day Lacandones — who continued the practice of their traditional "pagan" religion.

The Spaniards were not unaware of the Lacandon community, but it was too small and too poor to provide a proper incentive for repeated expeditions into the inhospitable, malaria infested area. Unlike the Yucatán Peninsula, Lacandon was plagued with marshes, flooding rivers, rough outcroppings of rock and inpenetrable vegetation. These conditions made the forest impassable for horses and extremely difficult for mules; gunpowder quickly became damp, and Spanish cannons and armor were more of a handicap than an advantage. The few incursions attempted were either partial or total failures.

Once the conquest had begun, the Spaniards had to destroy the Mayas' functional social organization before it would destroy them. The great teachers and leaders were murdered, the books burned, the schools and temples razed, and from the fine limestone blocks of their rubble, new Catholic churches, chapels, monastaries and cathedrals were built. The traditional arts, sciences and ethnic values were lost. The people were confused, leaderless and enslaved.

Maya culture survived intact only in the most remote communities, and in ones small and economically unimportant enough to escape notice. These were cut off from traditional Maya commerce, and as the peasent population dwindled, the nobles had to lower their standard of living. From a leisured, esoteric elite, the astronomers, mathemeticians and warriors became proletarians: milpa farmers, fishermen and hunters.

The northern Lacandones today number slightly over 250 men, women and children. Even the greater number of a "total Lacandon population," arrived at by lumping northerners and southerners together, is still less than 400. —Robert D. Bruce

From "The Last Lords of Palenque: The Lacandon Mayas of the Mexican Rain Forest" by Victor Perera and Robert D. Bruce. (Little, Brown and Company) Copyright ©1982 Victor Perera and Robert D. Bruce.

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