Lenca at a market in La Esperanza, Honduras
|Regions with significant populations|
|Honduran Spanish, Salvadoran Spanish
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.
While there are ongoing political problems in contemporary Central America over indigenous land rights and identity, the Lenca have been able to retain many Pre-Columbian traditions. Although they have lost their indigenous language, and their culture has changed in other ways over the centuries, the Lenca preserve enough of their traditional ways to identify as indigenous peoples.
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 their communities, Lenca traditionally expect all members to participate in communal efforts.
While there has been a growing national acceptance of indigenous rights and culture in both Honduras and El Salvador, the Lenca continue to struggle in both nations over indigenous land rights. In the mid-1990s, indigenous activists formed in order to petition the government over 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, there has been a decreasing amount of land for indigenous peoples. Many Lenca men have had to find employment in neighboring cities.
Many Lenca communities still have their communal land. They devote the majority of cultivation to commodity crops raised for export to 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 thus expand its market. Much of the modern painted pottery for sale today (often painted black and white) is not of traditional origin, and has been modified for the appeal of foreign buyers.
Traditional Lencan pottery is still made in the town of Gracias and the surrounding villages, most notably La Campa. Visitors can see demonstrations of how the traditional pottery is made. It is usually a dark orange or brick color.
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.
Certain indigenous practices and ceremonies are still observed by the Lenca. During different crop seasons, for instance, Lenca men partake in ceremonies where they consume chicha and burn incense. The Lenca have also incorporated their traditions and beliefs with Catholicism in a process of 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 adopted 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 of the patron saint of the town. Honduran towns such as Yamaranguila, La Campa, La Paz and Tencoa all host the annual celebration.
Until recently, archaeological research and investigation on Lenca settlements had been limited, while more attention was given to colonial-era settlements influenced by Europeans. In addition, many of the sites are difficult to access. Surface evidence in rural areas reveal that Pre-Columbian indigenous settlements existed in many regions, but it is often difficult for researchers to conduct scientific excavations because the sites are found in agricultural fields under cultivation. Many surface-visible earthwork 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. It shows 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, for water and transportation access. The lowlands were typically fertile areas for cultivation. They built relatively small monumental public structures, which were 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; many artifacts have been found linking settlements together though ceramics. The production of Ulua Polychrome ceramics have been shown 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 Lenca 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 pre-classic settlements suggests an existence of a ranked society. All corners of the basin were 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 constructed earthen mound. Many other sites appear to share site-planning principles and structural forms, with large, open plazas, leveled by manual grading, dominated by a massive two- to three- tiered pyramidal earthwork mound 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. Population pressure may have prompted their migrations to new territory.
Although archaeological surveys were limited in the past, since the late 20th century, scholars have focused on researching and exploring settlement patterns, in order to fill out the chronological framework for the Pre-Columbian Lenca. Research is ongoing; new evidence is helping fill in some interstices of indigenous peoples of the area.
Lenca heritage tourism is expanding. It has encouraged attention 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 tourist route passes through a series of rural towns in southwestern Honduras within traditional Lenca territory. The route has designated stops in the departments of Inticuba, La Paz, Lempira, and adjacent valleys. Stops include La Campa, where traditional Lenca pottery is handcrafted by a cooperative; 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 attract tourist money to Lenca communities and to encourage preservation of remaining indigenous cultural practices by providing new markets. The project has gained some successes.
Members of the Lenca community have been active in protesting the development of the Agua Zarca Hydro Project and dam. Berta Cáceres, a leader of the indigenous Lenca people and founder of the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) was murdered March 3 of 2016. 
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