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  The Pech History

 Introduction

The exact origin of the Pech people is still unknown. Some theorize that the Pech may have been part of a migration of peoples from North to South America 7000 years ago that stopped and settled on the land bridge of Central America. Many archeological sites have been discovered on their present territory in southern Honduras. To date, only limited studies have been done on the area but researchers speculate that they are attributable to a specific ethnic group, possibly the ancestors of the Pech. However, linguistic studies indicate that the Pech could be the descendants of tribes from South America. Their language is most similar to that of Chibchaps of Colombia and also shares common roots with that of the Kuna indians of Panama. Thus, with a lack of archeological evidence to the contrary, it is commonly accepted that the Pech are of South American descent.

(*According to Adolpho Constena, the Pech language is a derivative from the root of chibchense of the chibcha B language family. The ethnic division happened in the third millenium before Christ, probably between 4300 and 5000 B.C.)

Their arrival time in Central America remains uncertain, and may be linked to a renowned and legendary city state called "Ciudad Blanca", the white city. Currently the subject of much debate among historians, explorers and archeologists who have searched and studied the Mosquito Coast region, the lost city may hold the answers. According to the oral history and legends of the Pech, the city was constructed by Pech Spirits or Gods. They believe it was the city of "Patatahua", the primitive ancestors of the Pech. Upon the arrival of the first Europeans over 400 years ago it was either in serious decline or already abandoned. Recently numerous archeological expeditions have ventured into La Mosquitia and have produced contradictory claims in regards to history and location. Speculation is that the city was at its peak between 700 and 1000 years ago. Yet like some of the details of the Pech history, the "Lost City" remains a myth.

Until the middle of the 17th century, the Pech inhabited the entire region between the large lagoon of Caratasca and El Cabo de Gracios a Dios (Border of Nicaragua). Due to frequent armed conflict with neighboring Miskito tribes, and sizable influxes of Latinos, from the 19th Century the Pech territory was greatly reduced to the point where today, a population of less than 1600 Pech occupy fewer than a dozen villages in two regions. Traditionally isolationists, proud of their ethnicity and culture, in spite of colonization and assimilation of other indigenous groups, they avoided intermarriage with other cultures until this century.

The modern history of the Pech begins with the conquest of the New World and was extracted from the notes of Conquistadors, Missionaries and other new comers.

 

From 1564 to Present

The difficult terrain of La Moskitia and the hostility of the region's native peoples foiled all initial attempts at colonization in the 16th century. The first Spanish expedition arrived in 1564. As they were doing in the rest of the Americas, the Spanish believed that introducing religion first would help them control the indigenous peoples of the region. The first expedition of missionaries in La Moskitia was realized in 1607 and followed by another in 1609. Due to various environmental reasons the first missions and churches were not founded until 1610 on the Wampu river. They were subsequently burned by the dissenting Taguacas (Tawakas) Indians.

In 1611 the Spanish sent a third expedition with twenty five armed soldiers to protect the missions. The fortified village was unsuccessfully attacked by the Tawakas. The conquistadors captured a well respected chief, and nailed him to a tree after killing him. The angry Tawakas (some of who had been enslaved were working as forced labors) decided to avenge their chief. In January of 1612 they attacked the village by surprise during the night. They killed all the soldiers and religious leaders and cannibalized them (an act of anger, not a common practice).

Ten years later the Franciscan missionaries tried again and succeeded in gaining a foothold in the area. On February 16, 1622, the Father Martinez and the Fathers Fray Benito de San Francisco and Juan de Vaena left the established fort town of Trujillo (further north and west) by sea for El Cabo de Gracias a Dios. They put ashore and after a few days trekking they encountered a Pech village next to the river called Xarúa (or Jarúa) which they later called Concepción de Jarúa. Finding the Pech more receptive, they converted half a dozen villages and more than 700 adults and children in less than a year.

The same fathers then pushed to impose their religion on surruounding populations, eventually bringing in close to 6000  Guaba and Jicaque Indians. Pleased with their effort, they decided to extend their religion to the Tawakas. The Fathers Franciscans and Martinez were killed by the Tawakas of the Rio Wampu area in 1623 when they tried to convert them. After their deaths religious conquests stopped for years.

The first violent interaction between the Pech and Spanish happened in 1661 when the Pech attacked the Latinos who invaded their territory in the Aguan valley. In return, Captain Bartolome de Escoto counter-attacked the Pech and captured hundreds of them putting them into forced labor.

By the late 1600's the missionary-conquistadors finally made solid inroads into the Mosquito Coast region. In 1667, a few missionaries from Guatemala entered La Moskitia via the Rio Guayape and evangelized the Pech. They moved to the Agalta, Gualaco and San Jose valleys and founded the villages of Santa Maria, San Buenaventura, San Pedro Apóstol, San Pedro Alcátara, San Sebastian and San Felipe de Jesus. By 1690 these villages were inhabited by 6000 people.

In the mid-eighteen century the Spanish influence in the area was increasingly usurped by new forces, the English, French and Dutch pirates. All along the Mosquito Coast and the islands, enclaves of buccaneers raided the Spanish and made efforts to win over the various indigenous groups. They made an alliance with the Miskitos and provided them with firearms to fight the Spanish.

In the late 1800's the numerous coastal dwelling Miskitos, newly empowered with weapons, became the dominant force among the indigenous groups of the region. Notorious for their cruelty, they invaded all the other tribes in La Moskitia. The Pech fled from the coasts to find refuge up the Patuca, Sicre, Twas, Platano, Paulaya and Sico rivers. Sworn enemies of the Miskitos, and fighting with only primitive weapons, the Pech suffered extensive casualties and the overall population was significantly affected. They occasionally sought refuge next to Spanish lands to escape Miskito raiders. At other times they allied themselves for short periods of time with the Miskitos (often forced) to fight the Spanish. Meanwhile, the Spanish continued their struggle to subdue the various tribes by imposing religion in La Moskitia. The Miskitos with some support from pirates were mostly successful at keeping them out.

Most missionaries worked with the armed conquistadors in joint effort to rule indigenous people. In the nineteen century, the Spanish missionary Father Manuel de Jesus Subirana was the exception. He dedicated his life to helping the people. He helped the Pech of Santa Maria del Carbon to receive titles for their land which they did in 1862. He wrote a map of Honduras and continued his efforts with the Jicaques in 1864. Then he started petitioning for titles and rights to their land for The Pech of Culmi which received them in January 1898, years after the death of Father Subirana.

The fight for ownership of the land has continued since the conquistadors time. Initiated with events in 1869 a few villages have received titles over the years but this is still a rare case among the indigenous groups of La Mosquitia. In the 1970's the exploitation of forest land by homesteaders and illegal loggers opened the area to manipulation from the outside. The new roads and infrastructures facilitated the mass resettlement of Latino squatters and ranchers. Latinos chased indigenous people off their land and often acquired the titles which they never received.

Without any legal or judicial support and without any means of defending themselves, many Indigenous people have resigned themselves to their fate. Many became employees at the lowest level for COHDEFOR one of the main company which chased them from their land. Inconsistency, compromises (without consultation of local people) and corruption among COHDEFOR still remains one of the largest threats to the proper zoning of Indigenous Territory!

The daily lives and cultural traditions have been greatly affected by outside influence. Increased interaction with Latinos, often discriminatory and patronizing, has created an inferiority complex and resentment among some. Many of the Pech have abandoned their native tongue in favor of Spanish and adopted Latino culture to avoid further discrimination. In addition to the loss of their language, and their assimilation into the Latino lifestyles, many intermarried, thus leading to a greater dissolution of the Pech culture and traditions.

 

Today, of all the indigenous groups in La Moskitia, the remaining Pech people and the last vestiges of their culture are at the highest risk of extinction.

 

Note: Background photographs and design by Jean-Philippe Soule © 2000

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