The Lenca are an indigenous people of southwestern Honduras and eastern El Salvador. They once spoke the Lenca language, which is now extinct. In Honduras, the Lenca are the largest indigenous group with an estimated population of 100,000. El Salvador's Lenca population is estimated at about 37,000.
The pre-Conquest Lenca had frequent contact with various Maya groups as well as other indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America. The origin of Lenca populations has been a source of ongoing debate amongst anthropologists and historians. It continues to generate research focused on obtaining more archaeological evidence of pre-Colonial Lenca. Some scholars have suggested that the Lenca were not originally indigenous to Mesoamerica region, but migrated to the region from South America around 3,000 years ago.
Lenca culture has undergone centuries of acculturation preceding the Spanish conquest. Like other indigenous groups of Central America, they represent one of the many stages of acculturation, with the changing of cultural relationships to the land. While there are ongoing political problems over indigenous land rights and identity, the Lenca have been able to retain many Pre-Columbian traditions. Although they have lost much of their native culture, including their indigenous language, the living Lenca preserve enough of their traditional ways to identify themselves as indigenous peoples.
The life of all modern Lenca communities are centered on the milpa crop-growing system. Lenca men engage in agriculture, including the cultivation of coffee, cacao, tobacco, varieties of plantains and gourds. Other principal crops are maize, wheat, beans, squash, sugarcane, and chili peppers. In El Salvador peanuts are also cultivated. Within the communities, Lenca traditionally expect all members to participate in communal efforts.
While there has been a growing national acceptance of indigenous rights and culture, the Lenca are in an ongoing struggle over indigenous land rights. In the mid-1990s, indigenous activists formed to petition the issues of land ownership and indigenous rights. Due to the unresolved land issues, and constitutional amendments favoring land ownership by large-scale investors and agro-industrialists, a result of decreasing land availability has forced many Lenca men to result to take employment in neighboring cities.
Many Lenca communities still have their communal land, but have to devote a majority of it to the production of commodities for foreign markets. Most Lenca still use traditional agricultural practices on their own crops, as well as the crops for investors.
Throughout the regions of Lenca occupation, Lenca pottery was very distinguishable. Handcrafted by Lenca women, Lenca pottery is considered an ethnic marking of their culture. The mid-1980s creation of NGO woman cooperatives transformed the character of the craft. The cooperatives initial mission was to increase the profitability of the pottery by orienting production to meet the tastes of urban buyers, and expanding its market. Much of the modern painted pottery for sale today (often painted black and white) is not of traditional origin, and has been altered for the appeal of foreign buyers. Traditional Lencan pottery can still be found in the town of Gracias and the surrounding villages, most notably La Campa, where visitors can see demonstrations of how the traditional (usually a dark orange or brick color) pottery is made.
Modern Lenca religion is predominantly Roman Catholic, but some Lenca communities still retain and practice many indigenous traditions. Similar to other indigenous beliefs in Mesoamerica, the Lenca consider sacred mountains and hills as holy places. Many Lenca peoples still have profound respect and adoration for the sun. Indigenous practices and ceremonies are still observed by the Lenca. During different crop seasons, Lenca men partake in ceremonies where chicha is consumed and incense is burnt. As mentioned above, the Lenca's acculturation has enabled them to incorporate their traditions and beliefs with their Catholic religion in a process of ongoing religious syncretism
Guancasco is the annual ceremony by which neighboring communities, usually two, gather to establish reciprocal obligations in order to confirm peace and friendship. The guancascos take many forms and have acclimated many Catholic representations, but they also include traditional customs and representations. Processions and elaborate exchanges of greetings, and Honduran folk dancing are performed for the statue representation of the patron saint of the town. Honduran towns such as Yamaranguila, La Campa, La Paz and Tencoa are all hosts of the annual celebration.
Until recently, archaeological research and investigation on Lenca settlements had suffered from a general lack of attention. Archaeological research has been restricted due to difficulty of access to locations of many possible sites. Surface evidence in rural areas reveal that Pre-Columbian indigenous settlements existed in many regions, but it is often difficult to conduct scientific excavations because they are situated in agricultural fields. Many surface-visible mounds have been damaged from being plowed over by rural farmers. The evidence for Pre-Columbian Lenca has come from research and excavation of several sites in Honduras and El Salvador, showing that Lenca occupation was characterized by a relatively continuous pattern of growth with some fluctuations.
The Comayagua Valley, is located at the highland basin linking the Pacific and Caribbean drainage systems of Honduras. The valley provides evidence for a rich setting of cross-cultural relationships and Lenca settlements. According to Boyd Dixon, research in the area has revealed a complex history spanning approximately 2500 years from the early pre-classic period to the Spanish Conquest of 1537. Prehistoric Lenca settlements were typically located along major rivers, monumental public structures were relatively small and few in number, except for military fortifications. Most constructions were made of adobe rather than stone.
In his research of the Comayagua Valley region, Dixon finds evidence of large quantities of cross-cultural relationships and many remains have been found linking settlements together though ceramics. The production of Ulua Polychrome ceramics have been used to link Lenca settlements with neighboring chiefdoms during the classic period. The Lenca sites of Yarumela, Los Naranjos in Honduras, and Quelepa in El Salvador all contain evidence of the Usulután-style ceramics.
Yarumela is an archaeological site believed to be a primary center within the Comayagua Valley during the middle and late formative periods. The site contained a large primary center several times the size of its neighboring settlements, secondary centers in the region. It was most likely established because of its proximity to some of the major floodplains in the valley. The pattern and scale of the late preclassic settlements suggests an existence of a ranked society, with all corners of the basin being located within a half-day walk of Yarumela. Other features found in the area are at the sites of Los Naranjos, and Chalchuapa in El Salvador, each dominated by a single earthen mound. Many other sites appear to share site-planning principles and structural forms, being that of large, open plazas dominated by a massive two- to three- tiered pyramidal structure.
Quelepa is a major site in eastern El Salvador. Its pottery shows strong similarities to ceramics found in central western El Salvador and the Maya highlands. Archaeologists speculate that Quelepa was settled by Lenca speakers from Honduras, from which population pressure may have necessitated their migrations.
Although archaeological evidence has been limited in the past, more attention has recently been focused towards researching and understanding settlement patterns and the chronological framework for the Pre-Columbian Lenca. Research is ongoing and is continuously providing evidence that fill in some interstices of indigenous peoples of the area.
Lenca tourism is expanding while bringing new light to indigenous Lenca traditions and culture, especially in Honduras. The Honduran Tourism Institute along with the United Nations Development Program, has developed a cultural heritage project dedicated to the Lenca and their culture called La Ruta Lenca. This is a tourist route through a series of rural towns in southwestern Honduras within traditional Lenca territory. The route stops through the departments of Inticuba, La Paz, Lempira, and other adjacent valleys. With stops at La Campa, where traditional Lenca pottery is handcrafted by one of the cooperatives, the archaeological sites of Los Naranjos and Yarumela, the town of Gracias and other towns with Lenca heritage. The development of La Ruta Lenca was designed to bring tourist money to Lenca communities and to preserve remaining indigenous cultural practices; so far the project has been met with success.
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