The Lacandón Mayas live in the rain forest of Chiapas, Mexico. They are the descendants of Yucatec-speaking refugees who escaped assimilation and extermination during the Spanish Conquest. Protected by their isolation and the hostile nature of the environment, these long-haired, barefooted fugitives preserved, perfected, and passed down their ancient Maya heritage to their children. This included a detailed knowledge of the rain forest and a remarkable system of swidden farming. At the time of the Conquest those Mayas who continued to practice their traditional religion were called the Lacandones. The origin of Lacandón is the Maya plural form ah akan-tun-oob, which derives from ah “the/they ; akan “standing/set-up”; tun “precious stone”. Thus the ah akantunoob were “those who set up (and worshipped) stone idols” (Bruce 1982:8). Another analysis of the term is given by Tozzer (1907:4) as acun thunder ; tun stone (thunder stone?). The Spaniards adopted the term and used it to refer to the “pagans” or the “Maya wild Indians”. El Acantún became El Lacantún, which further deformed to El Lacandón. The Lacandones, however, refer to themselves as the Hach Winik “True People.”
Today, the Lacandones number around 600 men, women, and children. All still live in their jungle settlements. Of the 600, roughly 250 live in Nahá, 50 in Mensäbäk, and 300 in Lacanjá. These numbers change during peak tourist season, when ten percent of the population moves to Palenque to peddle their souvenirs. A few families reside permanently in Palenque, following a pattern that has been going on since the 1790s when Lacandón men were marrying Palenque women. A few others live in San Cristobal de las Casas. However, the majority of families and individuals restrict their movements to travelling back and forth among the three villages (Jon McGee 2000, personal communication).
Although culturally similar, the Lacandones do not constitute a single ethnic group. The population is divided into a northern and a southern community. The northern Lacandones live west of the Usumacinta River, and southeast of the Mayan ruins of Palenque. The southern Lacandones reside southeast of the northern Lacandón territory and near the ruins of Bonampak. Each group views the other as being different, which is reflected in their terms for one another. The northern Lacandones refer to their southern neighbours as Chukuch Nok “Long Tunics.” The southern Lacandones call the northerners Naachi Winik “Far Away People” or Huntul Winik “Other People” (Boremanse 1998:8). Although they speak their own regional variety of Lacandón, each group considers the other’s speech to be deficient, and at times, unintelligible (Bruce 1992, personal communication).
One significant difference between the two groups is the degree of cultural conservatism each has retained. Efforts to Christianize the Lacandones have been partially successful, with the total conversion of the southern Lacandones in the 1960s. Conversion of the northern Lacandones proved futile, because the missionaries failed in their efforts to discredit and dismantle the prestige of the patriarch, Chan K’in Viejo, or his profound religious devotion. His community continued to practice the ancient traditions right up until his death in 1996.