Numbers of ethnic group members and Itza speakers
According to the census of 2002, there are 1,983 ethnic Itza, who retain some aspects of their indigenous culture. However, the Itza language is now almost extinct. Data taken from the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) suggest there were only twelve fluent Itza speakers left in 1986 and 60 non-fluent speakers in 1991. According to the census of 2002, however, there are still 1094 speakers. The Mayan word itza means 'enchanted waters' and may have been adopted from the name of the lake itself.
The Itza were descended from the Ah Itzá Yucatecan Maya lineage; historically they were an important Mesoamerican people who dominated the Yucatán peninsula in the Post-classic period. The Itza may have originated from the Classic Period city of Motul de San José near lake Peten Itza in Guatemala, migrating to Yucatán during the Maya collapse at the end of the Classic Period. From their capital at Chichén Itzá, Mexico they established a trade empire reaching as far south as Naco in Honduras. Chichen Itza means 'at the mouth of the well of the Itza' in the Itza' language.
The books of Chilam Balam recount the history of the Itza and the demise of their empire at the hands of a band of Mexicanized Putún Maya led by the mercenary king Hunac Ceel, founder of the Cocom dynasty of Mayapan. Hunac Ceel fought the Itzas but was taken captive and was to be sacrificed by being thrown into the cenote of Chichén Itzá. However, he survived the attempted sacrifice, and having spent a night in the water he was able to relate a prophecy of the rain god Chac about the year's coming harvest. Once lord of Mayapan, he orchestrated, aided by sorcery, the destruction of Chichén Itzá.
While part of the story of Hunac Ceel seem to be more mythical than historical, it is generally accepted that the Itza of Chichén Itzá were the eventual losers in a power struggle between the three Yucatecan lineages of the Cocom, the Xiu and the Itzá, all claiming heritage from the Toltecs. And around 1331 archeological remains attest that Chichén Itzá and other Itza dominated sites, for example Isla Cerritos, were abandoned. The fall of these sites was contemporary with a gradual incursion of mexicanized Putún Maya from Tabasco and central Mexico, and it seems that these were indeed the ones that caused the fall of the original Itza state.
Aerial view of Flores, Guatemala, built on the ruins of the Itza capital Nojpetén
The Itza then left or were expelled from the Yucatán region and returned south to the Petén Basin region to build the city Nojpetén as their capital. Noj peten meant "great island" in their language. The early Spanish accounts referred to it as Tayasal, derived from tah itza ("place of the Itzá").
The island city of Nojpetén was the capital of the last independent Mayan kingdom, and some Spanish priests peacefully visited and preached to the last Itza king, also called Kan Ek', as late as 1696. On March 13, 1697, the Itza kingdom finally submitted to Spanish rule, represented by a force led by Martín de Ursua, governor of Yucatán. The northern lowland Petén region includes families that can be traced back to pre-colonial Itza. Although the Itza language is near extinction, Itza agro-forestry practices, including use of dietary and medicinal plants, may still tell us much about how pre-colonial Itza managed the Maya lowlands.