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Pipil people

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Nahua family in Sonsonate, El Salvador.
Total population
Regions with significant populations
Western and central El Salvador
 El SalvadorEstimated 12,000[1]
Nawat (Nahuat), Salvadoran Spanish
Christianity (Predominantly Roman Catholic) and Traditional Indigenous Customs
Related ethnic groups
Nahuas, Nicarao people, Lenca

The Pipil are an Indigenous group of Mesoamerican people inhabiting the western and central areas of present-day El Salvador. They are a subgroup of the larger Nahua ethnic group of Central America. They speak the Nawat language, which belongs to the Nahuan language branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The Nawat language is distinct from the Nahuatl language, as Nawat is descended from the central Mexican Nahuatl, and spoken mainly in Central America. There are very few speakers of the language left, which is a reason for the current efforts being made to revitalize it.

Nahua cosmology is related to that of the Toltec, Maya and Lenca.[2]


Map of El Salvador's Indigenous Peoples at the time of the Spanish conquest: 1. Pipil (Nahua), 2. Lenca, 3. Kakawira o Cacaopera, 4. Xinca, 5. Maya Ch'orti' people, 6. Maya Poqomam people, 7. Mangue o Chorotega.
Estimated paths of the Pipil migration to El Salvador [3]

Indigenous accounts recorded by Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Francisco de Oviedo suggest that the Pipil of El Salvador migrated from present-day Mexico to their current locations beginning around the 8th century A.D. They traveled from current day central Mexico to the Gulf coast. After a short period of time, they then travelled southwards through the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, ending their journey on the Balsam Coast of El Salvador.[3] As they settled in the area, they founded the city-state of Kūskatan, which was already home to various groups including the Lenca, Xinca, Ch'orti', and Poqomam.

The Nahua, a cohesive group sharing a central Mexican culture, are said to have migrated to Central America during the Late Classic and Early Postclassic period. The Nahua are linguistically tied to the Aztec, so it is likely that both were descended from the Toltecs. The tenth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries saw a Nahua diaspora across Central America, which the Pipil were a part of.[4]

The Pipil organized the confederacy, Kūskatan, with at least two centralized city-states that may have been subdivided into smaller principalities. A common feature of Nahua societies was a grouping of settlements who all had symmetric relationships with the others, rather than one dominant city.[4]They were also competent workers in cotton textiles and developed a wide-ranging trade network for woven goods as well as agricultural products. Their cultivation of cacao, centered in the Izalco area and involving a vast and sophisticated irrigation system, was especially lucrative, and trade reached as far north as Teotihuacan and south to Costa Rica.[3][citation needed]

Near the coast, cotton and indigo were produced as well as cacao. However, a rival confederation of the Tz'utujil and K'iche people began to settle that area, in a deliberate attempt to control the resources of the area. This may be the reason that archeological evidence of continuous Pipil occupation is lacking compared to other cultures that had more permanent stays in the same areas.[5]

When their presence was documented by the Spanish in the 16th century, they were identified as "Pipil" and located in the present areas of western El Salvador, as well as south-eastern Guatemala.[3] Poqomam Maya settlements were interspersed around the area of Chalchuapa.

Some urban centers developed into present-day cities, such as Sonsonate and Ahuachapán. Ruins in Aguilares and those close to the Guazapa volcano are considered to have been Nahua establishments.

Language, etymology, and synonymy[edit]

The seal of Kuskatan based on the "Lienzo de Tlaxcala" with the symbol of an altepetl

See also: Nawat language and Nawat grammar

The term Nahua is a cultural and ethnic term used for Nahuan-speaking groups. Though they are Nahua, the term Pipil is the term that is most commonly encountered in anthropological and linguistic literature. This exonym derives from the closely related Nahuatl word pil (meaning "boy"). The term Pipil has often been explained as originating as a derogatory reference made by the Aztecs, who presumably regarded the Nawat language as a childish version of their own language, Nahuatl. However, the Nahua do not refer to themselves as Pipil. There is evidence that the Pipil also were able to understand Nahuatl, as the Spanish were able to communicate with Pipil they encountered in Nahuatl. Nahuatl was used as a "vehicular language" at that time, because many different groups could speak Nahuatl, so groups with unintelligible languages to each other could communicate. However, unlike in Nahuatl, honorifics for religious concepts do not include complex honorifics added to nouns, prepositions, and verbs. Which may have been further reasoning on why the Aztecs believed they spoke a degraded version of Nahuatl. Because of this when Spanish evangelicals came to indoctrinate Pipil the Pipil didn't understand them. Causing trouble in indoctrinating them into Christianity and making the friars learn their unique patterns.[6]

Archaeologist William Fowler notes that the term Pipil can be translated as "noble" and surmises that the invading Spanish and their Indian auxiliaries, the Tlaxcala, used the name as a reference to the population's elite, known as the Pipiltin. The Pipiltin were land owners and composed a sovereign society state during the Toltec expansion.

For most authors, the term Pipil or Nawat (Nahuat) is used to refer to the language in Central America only (i.e., excluding Mexico). However, the term (along with the synonymous Eastern Nahuatl) has also been used to refer to Nahuan language varieties in the southern Mexican states of Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas, that, like the Nawat in El Salvador, have reduced the earlier /tl/ sound to a /t/. The varieties spoken in these three areas do share greater similarities with Nawat than the other Nahuan varieties do, which suggests a closer connection; however, Campbell (1985) considers Nawat distinct enough to be a language separate from the Nahuan branch, thus rejecting an Eastern Nahuatl subgrouping that includes Nawat.

Dialects of Nawat include the following:[7]

  • Izalco
  • Nahuizalco
  • Panchimalco
  • Cuisnahuat
  • Santo Domingo de Guzmán
  • Santa Catarina Mazagua
  • Teotepeque
  • Tacuba
  • Ataco
  • Jicalapa
  • Comazagua
  • Chiltiupan

Today, Nawat is seldom used by the general population. It is mostly used in rural areas, mostly as phrases sustained in households, such as in the Sonsonate and Ahuachapán[citation needed] departments. Cuisnahuat and Santo Domingo de Guzmán have the highest concentration of Nawat speakers. Campbell's 1985 estimate (fieldwork 1970-1976) was 200 remaining speakers although as many as 2000 speakers have been recorded in official Mexican reports.[citation needed] Gordon (2005) reports only 20 speakers (from 1987). The exact number of Native Nawat speakers is difficult to determine because many speakers have wished to remain unidentified, this is due to historic government repression of Indigenous Salvadorans. The most known example of this being La Matanza ("The Massacre") of 1932, where an estimated 40,000 Indigenous Salvadorans were executed by the government. This event caused many Indigenous Salvadorans who survived to stop passing on their Native language, traditions, and other cultural practices to their descendants. Many also stopped wearing traditional Indigenous clothing out of fear.

Spanish conquest[edit]

In the early 16th century, the Spanish conquistadores ventured into Central America from Mexico, then known as the Spanish colony of New Spain. After subduing the highland Mayan city-states through battle and cooptation, the Spanish sought to extend their dominion to the lower pacific region of the Nahua, then dominated by the powerful city-state of Cuscatlán. Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant of Hernán Cortés, led the first Spanish invasion in June 1524. He was accompanied by thousands of Tlaxcala and Cakchiquel allies, who had long been rivals of Cuzcatlan for control over their wealthy cacao-producing region. The Nahua warriors met the Spanish forces in two major open battles that send the Spanish army retreating back to Guatemala. The Spaniards eventually returned with reinforcements. The surviving Cuscatlán forces retreated into the mountains, where they sustained a guerrilla war against the allies of the Spanish, who had occupied the city of Cuscatlán. Unable to defeat this resistance, and with Pedro de Alvarado nursing a painful leg wound from an arrow in the first battle in Acajutla beach, Diego de Alvarado was forced to lead the rest of the conquest. Two subsequent Spanish expeditions were required to achieve the complete defeat of Cuzcatan, in 1525 and again in 1528.[8]

According to legend, a Nahua Cacique or Lord named Atlácatl and Lord Atunal Tut led the Pipil forces against first contact with the Spanish, the most famous battle being the Battle of Acajutla led by Atunal. The Annals of the Cakchiquels mentions the name "Pan Atacat" (water men), in reference to coastal Nahua (this may have been a title for war chiefs or coastal warriors).[citation needed]

At the start of colonization, the Pipil continued in some senses their own way of life after the Spanish conquest. This was due to the economic system the Spaniards put in place in El Salvador. Settling mostly in the western side of El Salvador they incorporated the Indigenous populations into their new social and political order. with the Spaniards collecting and selling the products Indigenous people produced, because the Indigenous populations were much better at cultivating the native crops in the region especially the lucrative cacao plant.[9] However, their cities were forced to realign themselves into grid plan cities according to the Spanish custom. In Ciudad Vieja, a settlement containing many Pipil as well as Spaniards, many examples of Pipil pottery and obsidian artifacts were found, as well as metalwork that was clearly of Spanish origin. The dense, grid plan city was ruled by the Spanish, but many Pipil living there made a life in which they continued to keep in touch with their indigenous customs.[10] For the Pipil population that stayed inside the Spanish rule they were forced to stop native crop cultivate and start farming Cacao. The Spanish also passed a tax on the Cacao from the family heads, by 1590 the Pipil population was 20% of what it was pre conquest.[11]

While some Pipil continued to live in strongholds in Western and Central El Salvador, by 1892 reports say most of the population in El Salvador was Spanish monolingual. This was attributed to it being easier to learn Spanish and have a chance of making it out of the Pipil communities and fully assimilate into the now Spanish El Salvador instead of living under the oppressive taxes and work.[11]

The Spanish were dedicated to the chronicling of the people who they were colonizing, and as such wrote at length about the Pipil. However, many of the sources are of unknown accuracy, as some do not cite any sources, and some carry obvious biases. Despite this, several sources have good information that historians have referred to in the absence of the original manuscripts to which they refer, many of which were destroyed by the Spanish.[12]

After the Spanish victory, the Nahua of Kuskatan became vassals of the Spanish Crown and were no longer referred to as Pipiles by the Spanish but simply indios (Indians), in accordance with the Vatican "Discovery doctrine". The term Pipil has therefore remained associated, in mainstream Salvadoran rhetoric, with the pre-conquest indigenous culture. Today it is used by scholars to distinguish the indigenous population in El Salvador from other Nahua-speaking groups (e.g., in Nicaragua). However, neither the self-identified indigenous population nor its political movement, which has revived in recent decades, uses the term "pipil" to describe themselves but instead uses terms such as "Nawataketza" (a speaker of Nawat) or simply "indígenas" (indigenous).

Pipil Archaeology[edit]

The archaeological study of the broader Nahua peoples of Meso and Central America has been widespread and thorough. However, studies devoted to the Pipil specifically are rarer, but still important.

A bulk of Pipil focused archaeological research has gone into deciphering the exact migrational route that the Pipil took from central Mexico to El Salvador, and where exactly they first settled. This includes the tracking of their path to the Gulf Coast through remaining Nawat speakers and their traversal of the Isthmus of Mexico. Much of the research on this topic has also sought to illuminate why they chose the Western Balsam coast[13] as their destination, and why they migrated at all. Escamilla Rodriguez has asserted that to a certain extent, the early pipil sites studied on the Balsam coast of El Salvador were changed and appropriated by the settlers as part of a diasporic migration process, maintaining their identities through alteration of their landscape.[13]  

Archeological study of Pipil art, especially through the 16th and 17th centuries, has also been thorough. Apart from the study of traditional art, archaeologists have looked at the development of Pipil artisanship through Spanish colonization. During Spanish colonization, when Pipil artisans were indentured to the conquistadors, studies have found that much of their traditional pottery was influenced by the European trends[14] brought in by the Spanish. Analysis showed how even though the pottery created by the Pipil artists was ornamented with traditional indigenous decoration, the forms of the pieces themselves were frequently European. Jeb Card[14] sites this artistic influence as evidence for ethnogenesis during the long rule of the Spanish.

Pipil writing forms, apart from being analyzed linguistically, have also been studied archaeologically as a fundamental part of unique Pipil culture. Archaeologists analyzing Pipil writings have discovered strong emphasis on currency and commodity, pointing towards an economically advanced pre-colonial culture.[15] Kathryn Sempeck, among others, upholds Pipil’s unique style of writing, especially involving politics and economics, as a deliberate demonstrator of Pipil independence and cultural separation from the Aztec and the Mixtec, with whom they share a geographic origin.[15]

Pipil resistance[edit]

In 1881 there were several small rebellions launched, after the El Salvadorean government passed a decree that abolished the ejido system and the tieras comunales. The communal common lands where Pipil continued to farm their crops and pay tribute to the government. This effectively placed all Pipil people in poverty as they could no longer farm. [16]

La Mantanza: In 1932 the Pipil and communists (mostly El Salvadorean peasants wanting land reform) started a rebellion against the El Salvadorean government and their well-trained and armed army. The government responded with the indiscriminate massacre of a conservative 30,000 Indigenous people over the course of a few days. Peasants were rounded up arms tied behind their back and shot. U.S. Historian Thomas Andeson who studied the Massace wrote "The extermination was so great that they could not be buried fast enough, and a great stench of rotting flesh permeated the air of Western El Salvador."[17]

Today the Pipil people still continue to resist oppression by spreading their culture and continuing traditional practices.[18]

Modern Nahua Culture[edit]

Popular accounts of the Nahua have had a strong influence on the national oral histories of El Salvador, with a large portion of the population claiming ancestry from the Pipil and other groups. Some 86% of today's Salvadorans self-report as Mestizos (people of mixed Amerindian and European descent). A small percentage (estimated by the government at 1 percent, by UNESCO at 2 percent, and by scholars at between 2 and 4 percent) is of solely or nearly solely Indigenous ancestry, although the numbers are disputed for political reasons. There are still Natives who speak Nawat (Nahuat) and follow traditional ways of life. They live mainly in the southwest part of the country in small villages,[19] but numerous self-identified Indigenous populations live in other areas, such as the Nonualcos south of the capital and the Lenca in the east.

Remaining self-identified El Salvadorian native cultures other than the Pipil include the Lenca, Pokoman, Chorti, and Ulva peoples.[20][21][22] The Pipil, however, are descendants of the central Mexican peoples who would form the Aztecs,[3] making them unique in cultural history to other native peoples currently situated in El Salvador. The Pipil remain the only substantial population of central Mexican-originating peoples in El Salvador.[13]

In the mid 1900s the majority of people in El Salvador believed there was no indigenous peoples left in El Salvador as the majority of education in Central America emphasized a blended Mestizo culture that could unite countries through the struggles of development and civil wars. With most in the capital of San Salvador saying there wasn't any left in the whole of El Salvador, this was not the case as estimates of Indigenous populations in 1975 were that of around 500,000 making up approximately 10 percent of the Salvadorean population. In this time period archeologists and anthropologists called the Indeginous peoples of El Salvador an Invisible population similar to how blacks were treated in the US.[9]

According to a special report in El Diario de Hoy, due to preservation and revitalization efforts of various non-profit organizations in conjunction with several universities, combined with a post-civil war resurgence of Nahua identity in the country of El Salvador, the number of Nawat speakers rose from 200 in the 1980s to 3,000 speakers in 2009. The vast majority of these speakers are young people, a fact that may allow the language to be pulled from the brink of extinction.[23] Nawat (Nahuat) language revitalization efforts are currently being made today, in and outside of El Salvador.

There is also a renewed interest in the preservation of traditional Indigenous customs and other Indigenous cultural practices, as well as a greater willingness by Indigenous Salvadoran communities to perform their ceremonies in public, and to wear traditional Indigenous clothing without fear of government repression. Traditional Pipil cuisine is gaining popularity, known of its use of unique flavor combinations and natural ingredients like corn, green tomatoes and chilis including pupusas (see Pupusa) and atol de elote.[citation needed]

Notable Nahua of El Salvador[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Pipil in El Salvador".
  2. ^ Boland, Roy (17 October 2017). Culture and Customs of El Salvador. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 9780313306204. Retrieved 17 October 2017 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ a b c d e Fowler, William R. (1989). The cultural evolution of ancient Nahua civilizations : the Pipil-Nicarao of Central America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-2197-1. OCLC 19130791.
  4. ^ a b Sampeck, Kathryn E. (2010). "Late Postclassic to Colonial Transformations of the Landscape in the Izalcos Region of Western El Salvador". Ancient Mesoamerica. 21 (2): 261–282. doi:10.1017/S0956536111000174. ISSN 0956-5361. JSTOR 26309197.
  5. ^ Van Akkeren, Ruud (1998). "Getting Acquainted with the Pipils from the Pacific Coast of Guatemala: an Ethno historic Study of Indigenous Documents and of the General Archive of Central America."http://www.famsi.org/reports/03101/99ruud/99ruud.pdf
  6. ^ Matthew, Laura E.; Romero, Sergio F. (2012-10-01). "Nahuatl and Pipil in Colonial Guatemala: A Central American Counterpoint". Ethnohistory. 59 (4): 765–783. doi:10.1215/00141801-1642743. ISSN 0014-1801.
  7. ^ Cambell, Lyle (1985). The Pipil Language of El Salvador. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co. p. 15. Retrieved 14 September 2022.
  8. ^ Fuentes y Guzmán, Francisco Antonio de (1967) [1951]. Recordación florida : discurso historial, demostración material, militar y política del reyno de Goathemala : libros primero, segundo y tercero de la primera parte de la obra. Editorial "José de Pineda Ibarra". OCLC 948355675.
  9. ^ a b Chapin, Mac (December 1989). "The Indians of El Salvador" (PDF). U.S. Agency for Internation Development: 3–9 – via Google Scholar.
  10. ^ Fowler, William R.; Card, Jeb J. (2019), Hofman, Corinne L.; Keehnen, Floris W.M. (eds.), "Material Encounters and Indigenous Transformations in Early Colonial El Salvador", Material Encounters and Indigenous Transformations in the Early Colonial Americas, Archaeological Case Studies, vol. 9, Brill, pp. 197–220, doi:10.1163/j.ctvrxk2gr.15?seq=11 (inactive 2024-06-12), ISBN 978-90-04-39245-8, JSTOR 10.1163/j.ctvrxk2gr.15, retrieved 2024-05-23{{citation}}: CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of June 2024 (link)
  11. ^ a b Lemus, Jorge E (2003). "Revitalizing indigenous languages: the case of Pipil in El Salvador". doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.2393.6167. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ Fowler, William R. (1985). "Ethnohistoric Sources on the Pipil-Nicarao of Central America: A Critical Analysis". Ethnohistory. 32 (1): 37–62. doi:10.2307/482092. ISSN 0014-1801. JSTOR 482092.
  13. ^ a b c Rodriguez, Escamilla (2022). "Nahua-Pipil Diasporic Migration and Symbolic Landscape in Early Postclassic El Salvador". ProQuest. ProQuest 2723811681.
  14. ^ a b Card, Jeb (Oct 22, 2013). Italianate Pipil Potters: Mesoamerican Transformation of Renaissance of Material Culture in Early Spanish Colonial San Salvador. SIU Press. ISBN 978-0809333165.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  15. ^ a b Sempek, Kathryn (2015). "Pipil Writing: An Archaeology of Prototypes and a Political Economy of Literacy". Ethnohistory.
  16. ^ Lemus, Jorge E (2003). "Revitalizing indigenous languages: the case of Pipil in El Salvador". doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.2393.6167. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  17. ^ Anderson, Thomas P. (1971). Matanza: El Salvador's Communist revolt of 1932. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-0-8032-0794-3.
  18. ^ Castro, Maria Eugenia Aguilar (August 2002). "The teachings of the Nahuat Pipil (El Salvador)". Biodiversity. 3 (3): 10. Bibcode:2002Biodi...3c..10C. doi:10.1080/14888386.2002.9712587. ISSN 1488-8386.
  19. ^ Greg, Nickels (June 2002). El Salvador, The People, and Culture. CrabTree Publishing Company (published 2002). p. 11. ISBN 9780778793687.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: date and year (link)
  20. ^ "The Pipil Indians of El Salvador". Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Retrieved 2024-05-16.
  21. ^ "Lenca | Indigenous, Honduras, Central America | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2024-05-16.
  22. ^ Morales, Olmedo (2021-08-09). "¿Quiénes son los Chortís?". ASB América Latina. Retrieved 2024-05-16.
  23. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-09-28. Retrieved 2012-09-30.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  24. ^ "Anastacio Aquino".


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