Campeche: on the edge of the Maya world

articles History & People

John P. Schmal

Located in the southwestern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula along the Gulf of Mexico, the State of Campeche was named after the ancient Maya Kingdom of Ah Kin Pech (Canpech). Campeche is bounded on the north and northeast by the State of Yucatán, on the east by the State of Quintana Roo, on the southeast by the nation of Belize, on the southwest by the State of Tabasco, and on the south by the Petén Department of Guatemala. Campeche also shares 404 kilometers (251 miles) of coastline with the Gulf of Mexico on its west and northwest.

With a total area of 56,798 square kilometers (21,924 square miles), Campeche is Mexico’s eighteenth largest state and occupies 2.9% of the national territory. With a population of 690,689 in the 2000 census, Campeche was ranked thirtieth among the Mexican states in terms of population. The territory of Campeche is politically divided into ten municipios. The capital city is Campeche, which had a population of 216,897 in 2000.

The Maya world

For about two thousand years, the Maya culture prospered through most of present-day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, western Honduras and the five Mexican states of Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Tabasco, Campeche and Chiapas. In all, the territory occupied by the Maya Indians was probably about 500,000 square kilometers (193,000 square miles) in area and is sometimes referred to collectively as El Mundo Maya (The Maya World).

The Mayas made a living through agriculture, hunting and fishing. They were also skilled weavers and temple builders who left a treasure trove of archaeological sites for later generations to admire. The Maya Linguistic Group is one of the largest in the Americas and is divided into approximately 69 languages, including the Huastec, Yucatec, Western Maya, and Eastern Maya groups.

For thousands of years, the Yucatec Maya has been the dominant Mayan language throughout the Yucatán Peninsula, including Campeche, Yucatán, and Quintana Roo. The language was documented in the ancient hieroglyphs of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilizations at several archaeological sites and may be as much as 5,000 years old. Even at the time of the 2000 census, 799,696 individuals in the entire Mexican Republic still spoke this language. (This number does not include the other major Maya linguistic groups, such as the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Huasteca, and the Chol, all of which thrive in several other Mexican states).

Interactive map of Campeche, Mexico

The Maya ethnohistorian, Ralph L. Roys, has written that sixteen native Maya states occupied most of the Yucatán Peninsula in the early 16th century and that this population was “remarkably uniform in language, customs, and fundamental political ideas.” Some of the sixteen “provinces” were “true political units,” while others were “loose confederations of autonomous communities, as well as groups of independent and mutually hostile states whose ruling families had a common lineage.”

Professor Roys and other historians have indicated that most of present-day Campeche was ruled over by four native states when the Spaniards first arrived in 1517: Acalán-Tixcel, Chanputún (Champotón), Canpech (Ah Kin Pech), and Ah Canul. While Acalán was primarily occupied by the Chontal Indians, the other three states were Yucatec Mayan nations.


The Chontal Indians of Acalán-Tixchel primarily occupied the territory that now includes the eastern part of the State of Tabasco and the southwest Campeche Municipio of Palizada. In all, this kingdom included at least 76 communities. It is believed that Chontalli was a Náhuatl term meaning “foreigner.” The Chontal of Tabasco speak one of the 69 Mayan languages and have a close relation to the Yucatec Maya and Chol on the east and the Tzeltal, Tzotzil, Kanjobal, and Chuj of Chiapas on the west.

The original inhabitants of the present-day Palizada Municipio were the Chontal Indians living in the Acalán-Tixchel Province, literally “the place of canoes.” However, at some point before the Spanish contact, Náhuatl-speaking merchants had settled at Xicallanco and Chanputún, driving out the Chontal. At the time of contact, an Aztec pochteca ruled over the important trading colony at Xicallanco and the surrounding area, while small Chontal communities were scattered along the lower Mamantel and Candelaria rivers. Living in the regions east of Acalán-Tixchel were a Yucatec Maya people who were known as the Cehache or Mazateca, inhabiting the border region between what is now Campeche and the Petén District of Guatemala.

Chanputún (Champotón)

Northeast of Acalán-Tixchel, along the present-day central coastline of Campeche, was the Yucatec Maya Province of Chanputún (Champotón), which ran from present-day Champotón northward to Tichac (Sihochac) and extended some distance inland. Apparently named for its principal town (now known as Champotón), Chanputún represented the southwestern extension of the Yucatec Maya cultural region. The Aztecs referred to the entire region of Champotón and Campeche as the “Province of Cochistan.”

Canpech (Ah Kin Pech)

Canpech probably earned its name from its principal town, the present-day city of Campeche (which was the Spanish pronunciation of the word). Cardinal Juan de Torquemada gives the Maya name as Kinpech, which has also been reconstructed as Ah Kin Pech, but the colonial Maya manuscripts only refer to it as Canpech. Ah Kin Pech, in the Maya language, means “the place of serpents and ticks.”

Ah Canul

The Maya Province of Ah Canul, with Calkiní as its primary town, extended about 145 kilometers (56 miles) along the western coastal plain from the Homtún River (slightly north of Campeche) to Punta Kipté on the northern coastline of Yucatán State. Ralph L. Roys wrote that “the Province of Ah Canul was one of the largest native states in the northern and more thickly populated half of the Yucatán peninsula.” From the west coast it extended inland “for an average distance of about 50 km.”

Ah Canul included the present-day Campeche municipios of Tenabo, Hecelchakán, and Calkiní. The Province also extended into western Yucatán State, where it included the present-day cities of Kinchil, Umán, and Hunucma within its boundaries.

First contact with Spaniards

On March 22, 1517, a Spanish naval force, under the command of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, sailing from Cuba, arrived off the shores of the Yucatán Peninsula, eventually passing south along the coastline of Campeche. The expedition stopped at a village named Lázarus, near the present-day site of Campeche, which was then part of the Canpech Province. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo (a member of the expedition), crewmembers stopped briefly at this location to look for water and were approached by a group of fifty natives. Soon after, however, Maya priests told the Spaniards to leave the area or face death, and they complied by departing.

The Spanish force moved south along the Campeche coastline and – ten days later, the Spaniards landed again near Champotón, where a cacique named Moch-Cuouh ruled. Shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards, the Maya attacked in force, killing more than fifty men. With their manpower reduced by half, the expedition was forced to return to Cuba. Córdoba himself received multiple wounds from ten arrows and died shortly after his return to Cuba.

In April 1518, another expedition of four ships and 300 men under the command of Juan de Grijalva left Cuba for the Yucatán. This expedition landed near Campeche at the river Lagartos, but was soon attacked by the Maya inhabitants and left the region.

In 1525, Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of Tenochtitlán, passed through a small portion of Campeche. During this time, Cortés made an alliance with Paxbolonacha, the ruler of Acalán. This accommodation initiated a gradual incorporation of the Chontal Maya into the Spanish empire. Cortés’ account of his journey through Acalán served as motivation for Francisco de Montejo to lead a second expedition to Acalán and the Yucatán area.

The Conquest of Campeche (1527-1541)

In December 1526, a wealthy nobleman from Salamanca, Spain, Francisco de Montejo was granted a royal contract (capitulación) to raise an army and conquer the Yucatán Peninsula. In 1527, Montejo landed with a crew of 500 Spanish soldiers at Cozumel (in present-day Quintana Roo) to commence with the conquest. Accompanied by his son – known as “El Mozo” (The Youthful) – and his nephew (“Sobrino”), Montejo crossed the Yucatán from east to west, eventually reaching the Campeche coastline near Kin Pech.

The resistance of the Maya provinces kept the Spanish forces in check for several years. In 1529, Montejo subdued the natives of Xicallanco, Copilco, and Hueyatastla in the south. After working to subdue the Chontal of Acalán and the Zoque of the highlands of Tabasco, Montejo later moved to the coastal region of Campeche where he was able to establish friendly relations with the natives of Champotón in 1530. By early 1531, Montejo controlled both Champotón and Campeche. Campeche became Montejo’s primary base of operations as he sent his lieutenant Alonso de Avila to explore and conquer the Maya provinces in the central and eastern sections of the peninsula.

While Avila made his way through the interior of the Yucatán, Montejo was able to consolidate his control over the province of Ah Canul north of Campeche, while the younger Montejo moved through several Maya provinces. As a result, researchers France Scholes and Ralph Roys observed that “by the end of 1532 a considerable part of northern Yucatán had apparently accepted Spanish suzerainty.”

By the summer of 1534, however, Montejo the Younger’s position in the Yucatán became precarious. With a depleted force, he departed his headquarters at Dzilam and retreated to join his father at Campeche. At the end of 1534, the older Montejo and his forces evacuated Campeche altogether, withdrawing to Tabasco. Campeche would not return to Spanish rule until 1541. A contributing factor to the failure of the Montejos to hold their positions was the loss of men who decided to go to Peru to find greater spoils in the conquest of the Inca Empire.

In 1537, Spanish forces under Alonso de Avila returned to Campeche and were able to establish a base at San Pedro de Champotón in present-day Campeche. During this period, the young settlement, according to France Scholes and Ralph Roys, “maintained a very uncertain existence.”

In 1540, Montejo the Younger arrived in Champotón to resume the conquest of the Yucatán Peninsula. By this time, Scholes and Roys explain, the indigenous inhabitants of the area had “became increasingly restive.” At the end of 1540, Montejo moved the settlement at Champotón to Campeche, which ultimately became the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Forming alliances with some of the local chieftains during 1541, the Montejos were able to subdue native forces in the provinces of Canpech and Ah Canul, bringing the present-day municipios of Tenabo, Hecelchakan and Calkiní under control. Later in the year, Montejo founded the “Villa and Puerto de San Francisco de Campeche.” From Campeche, Montejo moved on to the rest of the Yucatán Peninsula, where he won several battles and broke the power of the Maya resistance, founding the city of Mérida on January 6, 1542.

Once effective control had been established, the City of Campeche served a “strategic role as a trade and administrative center.” The first Franciscan missionaries arrived in Campeche perhaps as early as 1537, followed three years later by the founding of the first mission in Campeche. In the new few years, the Franciscans also moved into Champotón and Acalán.


Even before pacifying the native peoples of Campeche, Francisco Montejo and his lieutenants began to distribute the inhabitants through encomiendas, which were royal grants of indigenous inhabitants that licensed a Spanish encomendero to receive their labor and tribute. Unfortunately, the encomiendas became subject to abuse and were frequently enforced through brutality and cruelty. The Indians of Campeche, Champotón, and Acalán-Tixchel were distributed in encomiendas to the Spanish residents of Salamanca in 1530-1531, and they were reassigned in 1537.

Disease also took its toll on the indigenous people of Campeche. At contact, the populations of Champotón and Acalán probably numbered about 110,000. But smallpox decimated several communities in 1519 or 1520. An assessment of Champotón in 1549 suggested that there were about 2,000 Indian inhabitants left. A similar assessment of the Acalán encomienda in 1553 suggested about 4,000 Indians living in that province.

Ah Canul, which is located in a dryer climate than the rest of Campeche, was less affected by plagues than most other areas of Campeche and the Yucatán. It is estimated that the population at contact was 35,000 and that this dropped to 13,000 in 1548. After this, however, immigration from other areas helped rebuild the native population of Ah Canuel.

Political events

After independence, Campeche was essentially a part of Yucatán, which proclaimed its sovereignty in August 1822. But Yucatán and Campeche were both re-incorporated into Mexico in February 1824. Yucatán became a state within the Mexican Republic on October 3, 1824. On May 31, 1841, Yucatán declared its independence from Mexico. The state was re-incorporated into Mexico in December 1843, but independence was restored in December 1846. In August 17, 1848, Yucatán and Campeche were once again reincorporated into the Mexican Republic.

On August 7, 1857, Campeche was split off from Yucatán and declared as a district of Yucatán. On May 18, 1858, Campeche was created as the District of Campeche and the Isla de Carmen. Subsequently, upon approval of the Congress, Campeche was declared an “Estado Libre y Soberano de Campeche” (Free and Sovereign State of Campeche) of the Mexican Federation on April 29, 1863. From May 1864 to January 10, 1867, Campeche was reincorporated into Yucatán before returning to permanent statehood.

Indigenous Campeche (1895-1910)

In the 1895 census, Campeche was reported to have 39,212 persons aged five years or more who spoke an indigenous language, representing 44.5% of the population. During the same census, Campeche’s Spanish-speaking population numbered 48,671. After this census, the number of indigenous speaking persons in Campeche dropped steadily, in 1900 to 35,977 indigenous speakers and in 1910 to 28,280. The majority of the indigenous speakers in 1910 communicated in the Maya language (26,998 speakers). Fifty-one Yaquis were also tallied, possibly Porfiriato exiles from Sonora.

The Maya speakers in the 1910 census

In Mexico’s 1910 census, 227,883 persons were classified as speakers of the Yucatec Maya language, representing 11.62% of the 1,960,306 indigenous-speaking population in the entire country. Maya speakers were represented in 14 Mexican states, but only four states had significant numbers of them.

Maya girl © Luis Dumois, 1998

Maya girl © Luis Dumois, 1998

Yucatán contained the largest number of Maya speakers. A total of 199,073 Maya speakers lived in that state, representing 87.36% of all the Yucatec Maya speakers in the country. Campeche had the second largest number of Maya speakers with 26,998, which represented 11.85% of all Maya speakers. Two other states had significant numbers of Maya speakers: Quintana Roo (1,120) and Chiapas (638).

The 1921 census

In the unique 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white). Out of a total state population of 76,419, 33,176 persons (or 43.4%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. Slightly fewer – 31,675, or 41.5% – classified themselves as being mixed, while a mere 10,825 (14.2%) claimed to be white. When compared to the other Mexican states, Campeche had the sixth largest indígena pura population.

Although a significant number of people in Campeche claimed to be of pure indigenous heritage, a much smaller number – 23,410 – were classified as speakers of indigenous languages five years of age and more, representing 35.9% of the state population. All but five of these persons were Maya Indians, while four spoke the Amuzgo language.

Indigenous Campeche (1930-1980)

In the 1930 census, the number of indigenous speakers five years of age and over in the state of Campeche climbed to 31,324, representing 43.65% of the state’s population five years of age and over. The fact that 16,233 indigenous speakers were monolingual and unable to speak Spanish (representing 51.82% of the indigenous-speaking population) was indicative that some natives of Campeche successfully avoided assimilation into the central Hispanic culture.

Over the next four decades, Campeche’s indigenous-speaking population continued to grow, even though its percentage of the population dropped significantly from 43.65% in 1930 to 27.09% in 1970. The Maya language was, by far, the most widely spoken indigenous language in Campeche at the time of the 1970 census. At least 55,346 persons out of the 57,031 indigenous speakers spoke Maya, representing 97.05% of all indigenous speakers in Campeche. The Chol language, in second place, was spoken by only 411 individuals, followed by Otomí (320) and Tzeltal (206).

Native peoples of Campeche in 2000

According to the 2000 census, 185,938 residents of Campeche were classified as “Indígena,” representing 26.9% of Campeche’s total population (690,689). In contrast, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages amounted to 93,765 individuals, who made up only 15.45% of Campeche’s population five years and older. These individuals spoke more than fifty Indian languages, some of which were transplants from Central America or other parts of the Mexican Republic. Although most of the indigenous speakers were bilingual, 5,308 persons were registered as monolingual.

According to the estimates of INEGI and CONAPO, Campeche had four municipios that contained an indigenous population greater than 50 percent. In three of those four municipios, persons speaking indigenous languages also represented at least half the population of the municipio. At the same time, only two municipios contained populations that were less than ten percent indigenous. And, while Campeche’s overall indigenous-speaking population represented 15.5% of the total state population five or more years of age, five municipios had indigenous-speaking populations that were less than ten percent.

Calkiní, the municipio in the northwest corner of Campeche along the border of Yucatán, boasted the largest number of indigenous inhabitants in 2000. According to census statistics, 42,008 persons were classified as “Indígena,” representing 89.6% of the population of the municipio. Calkiní also contained 26,558 inhabitants 5 years of age or older who spoke some indigenous language, representing 63.16% of the municipio’s population and 28.3% of Campeche’s entire indigenous-speaking population of 93,765. Almost all of these individuals (26,453) spoke the Maya language.

The Maya Indians

In the year 2000, speakers of Yucatec Maya continued to represent the dominant language in the entire Yucatán Peninsula, with 547,098 (68.7%) in Yucatán, 163,477 (20.5%) in Quintana Roo, and 75,874 (9.5%) in Campeche. The 75,874 individuals 5 years of age and over who spoke the Maya language in Campeche represented only 9.53% of the 796,314 Maya who resided in the entire Mexican Republic in 2000 but also represented 80.9% of all indigenous language speakers in the state.

The Maya language family has a strong presence in seven Mexican states (Chiapas, Tabasco, Yucatán, Quintana Roo, Campeche, San Luis Potosí and Veracruz) and is the second most common language group in all of Mexico.

The Maya Language is the dominant indigenous language in all but three of Campeche’s municipios. In the 2000 census, four of the municipios had at least 10,000 Maya speakers: Calkiní (26,453), Hopelchén (14,961), Campeche (12,463), and Hecelchakán (11,396). Adjacent to the Mayan-dominant Yucatán state, Calkiní contained 34.9% of all the Maya speakers in Campeche in 2000.

The Chenes Region of Campeche (Hopelchen, and part of Campeche) contains a highly traditional and conservative Maya population, which due to its relative isolation, has a significant number of Maya monolingual speakers. In 2000, the 2,626 monolingual speakers in Campeche Municipio represented 9.9% of the entire indigenous-speaking population. In Hopelchen, 1,045 monolingual speakers represented 7.0% of those who spoke Indian tongues.

The Chol Indians

Some two thousand or more years ago, the Chol Indians inhabited the region which is now known as Guatemala and Honduras. Over time, they split into two main groups, the Chol migrating gradually to the region of present day Chiapas, and the Chortis staying in the region of Guatemala. The Choles of the present day call themselves “Winik” (“Man”) and primarily occupy northern Chiapas, adjacent to the states of Tabasco and Campeche.

The Chol Indians of Campeche numbered 8,844 in the 2000 census and accounted for 9.4% of the indigenous-speaking population of the state. The small number of Chol living in Campeche, in fact, represented only 5.47% of the 161,766 Choles who lived in the entire Mexican Republic. According to, the Chol belong to the Chol-Chontal subfamily of the Maya Linguistic Group. The Chontal of Tabasco are, in fact, a very closely related language as are the Chortí of Guatemala. The Chol are the dominant indigenous language in three southern Campeche municipios: Calakmul (4,253 speakers in 2000), Escárcega (1,804), and Candelaria (1,388).

The Kanjobal Indians

A total of 1,896 individuals five years of age or more in Campeche spoke the Kanjobal language in 2000, representing 2.0% of the population five years of age and older that spoke indigenous languages. The Kanjobal of Campeche represented 21.03% of the 9,015 Kanjobal-speakers living in the entire Mexican Republic in 2000. The Municipio of Champotón in southeastern Campeche contained 1,567 of the 1,896 Kanjobal-speakers in Campeche, but even in this municipio, they still only represented the second largest linguistic group (after the Maya).

The Kanjobal Language belongs to the Kanjobalan-Chujean subfamily of the Maya Linguistic Family. This subfamily includes the Chuj, Jacalteco, Kanjobal, Motozintleco (Mocho, Tuzanteco), and Tojolabal languages. Most of the languages of this subfamily straddle the border between Chiapas and Guatemala. Ethnologue reported that in 1998, 48,500 persons in Guatemala spoke the Kanjobal language, which represented 82.8% of the worldwide population of 58,600 at that time. The presence of Kanjobal as a language of Campeche is not unusual considering that the non-native population numbered 26.4% in 2000. In all, 14,262 speakers of indigenous languages in Campeche were born in other states or countries.

The Tzeltal Indians

The 1,706 individuals who spoke the Tzeltal language in Campeche in 2000 represented only 0.6% of the 284,826 Tzeltal-speakers in the entire Mexican Republic. According to the 2000 census, 278,577 persons five years of age or more who spoke the Tzeltal language lived in the State of Chiapas, representing 97.8% of the total population in the Republic.

The Mame Indians

The Mame language is not a common language in Campeche, largely because it is primarily a language of Guatemala, where as many as 200,000 people probably speak the language. In the Mexican Republic, however, Mame was spoken by only 7,680 individuals aged five or over in 2000. Mames inhabit small portions of Campeche, Quintana Roo and Chiapas, mainly in the southeastern frontier zones adjacent to Guatemala and principally in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas. The majority of Mame speakers are immigrants from Guatemala who settled in refugee camps in recent decades.

Other languages

Speakers of other indigenous languages in Campeche at the time of the 2000 census included the Tzotzil (552 speakers), Náhuatl (468), Zapoteco (468), Kekchi (366), and the Jacalteco (53). The Kekchi and Jacalteco, like the Mame language, are languages indigenous to Guatemala.

The Jacalteco language appears to be another language that is primarily spoken by migrants and refugees from Guatemala. According to the 2000 census, only 53 persons aged 5 and over spoke the Jacalteco language in Campeche, most of them inhabiting Champotón Municipio. The state of Chiapas, in contrast, had 453 persons of the same age range who spoke the language. But the language is most common in Guatemala, where approximately 20,000 people speak the language today.

The 2005 Conteo

The number of indigenous speakers five years of age and older actually decreased from 93,765 to 89,084 between the 2000 census and the 2005 census count. As such, the percentage of indigenous speakers dropped from 15.5% to 13.3%. It is expected that some immigration from Guatemala, Chiapas and the Yucatán will probably continue to contribute new speakers of Indian languages to the State. However, the number of actual indigenous speakers, as a portion of the total population, will probably continue its decline.

In spite of this, Campeche itself is a wonderful representation of the ancient Maya world. With archaeological sites at Calakmul, Edzná, Balamkú, Becán, Chicanná, Dzbilnocac, Hochob, Xpuhil, Campeche can offer any tourist a glimpse into the life of the Maya people when their culture was at its zenith. In this sense of the word, Campeche will always be indigenous and will always be Maya.

Primary Sources

Inga Clendinnen, Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517-1570 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2003).

Peter Gerhard, The Southeast Frontier of New Spain (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

Raymond G. Gordon, Jr. (ed.), “Ethnologue: Linguistic Lineage for Maya, Yucatán,” (Dallas, Tex.: SIL International, 2005). Online version [Accessed February 27, 2006].

Ralph L. Roys, The Political Geography of the Yucatán Maya (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1957).

France V. Scholes and Ralph L. Roys, The Maya Chontal Indians of Acalán-Tixchel: A Contribution to the History and Ethnography of the Yucatán Peninsula (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, 2nd edition).

Published or Updated on: July 23, 2009 by John P. Schmal © 2007
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