The Ch’orti’ Maya

The Ch’orti’ area, with Copán as a key center, was a focal point of the ancient Mayan civilization. The indigenous Ch’orti’ speakers belong culturally and linguistically to the southern Mayan groups and thus are most closely related to the Mayas of the Yucatan, Belize, and northern Guatemala.  Other Cholan groups, like the Chols of Chiapas and the Chontales of Tabasco, are linguistic and cultural cousins of the Ch’orti’.  Confronted by the Spanish invasion, the Ch’orti’, lead by their leader Copán Calel, put up a fierce resistance but were eventually subdued.


Historically, the Ch’orti’ Maya of Honduras occupied the departments of Ocotepeque, Copán, and a narrow strip of land in the northern part of Cortes and Santa Barbara. The territory of all the former Ch’orti’-speakers extended from northwestern El Salvador in the south, the Motagua River of Guatemala in the west, the Caribbean to the north, the aforementioned departments of Honduras in the east.  Today, most of the remaining 20,000 Ch’orti’-speakers are located in the townships of Jocotán and Olopa in the Department of Chiquimula, Guatemala.  In our country, the Ch’orti’ populations live in areas that are difficult to access, including rural communities (aldeas) in Copán Ruinas, Santa Rita, Cabañas, and Paraíso in the Departament of Santa Rosa de Copán, and those of Nuevo Ocotepeque and Sensenti in the Departament of Ocotepeque.  Although few of these rural people still speak Ch’orti’, our cultural and physical heritage largely comes from the former Ch’orti’ speakers.  Despite various forces motivating the abandonment of their distinctive cultures, such ethnic discrimination, the arrival of new religions and schools, and territorial separation from Ch’orti’-speaking populations in Guatemala, the rural populations continue to reproduce various unique traditions.  For example, they continue to use such Ch’orti’ words as kume (ch. ku’m) for youngest child, ixchoko (ch. ijch’ok, girl) for youth, tzik’in for the Month of the Dead, and chiwan for pataste (or chayote and guisquil in other countries).  Their music is played on various instruments, including the teponagua, the cortin, drums, flutes, rattles, timbrels, and deer antlers.  While our diet has been reduced to mostly corn tortillas and beans, we preserve ancient recipes such as chilar, pozol, atole dulce, and atole agrio (chuco) corn drinks, fermented sugarcane and pineapple drinks, and tortillas, tamales (ticucus, xepes, etc.), totoposte, and soups.  We worship and venerate nature through rituals to the earth, wind, and rain gods, and the consagration of seeds.

Organization and Culture

The current inhabitants of the departments of Copán and Ocotepeque are to some extent direct descendents of the Chortís.  The Ch’ortís of Copán use Spanish as their main means of communication.  Few people speak Ch’ortí, and those that do, come from Guatemala. The territorial boundaries between Honduras and Guatemala have separated the Ch’orti’populations in both countries.  This has contributed to the loss of the language and ethnic extinction in general; however, they still maintain their traditional dress. Their musical culture is expressed through a series of instruments, such as teponagua, cortin, tambor (drum), pito, chincin, sonaja, and cuerno. The rhythm most representative is the Baile of the Gigantes (Dance of the Giants). Their diet has been reduced to corn and beans. Corn is prepared in various ways: drinks (chilar, pozol, atole dulce and agrio), tortillas, tamal de viaje, totoposte, and alcoholic beverages (made with fermented pineapple and sugar cane juice. Ch’ortís revere the environment through rituals for the gods of the earth and consecration of seeds in honor of the wind gods.  We also know hundreds of medicinal herbs and remedies.