The beginnings of the Mayan civilisation, like other ancient civilisations in history, are shrouded in mystery. According to the mythological accounts, the civilisation came into being as a result of the migration of the Maya people under the leadership of a miraculous priest and teacher, Kukulcan. The Mayan civilisation eventually diverged into various tribes which were to retain their separate sub-cultures within the larger Mayan culture. There were many Mayan tribes or clans ruling different city states which were often hostile to each other.
The history of Mayan tribes or clans can be traced back to the pre-historic time and the beginning of the Mayan civilisation. Returning to the mythological accounts of the founding of the Mayan civilisation, the Maya people in the beginning were divided into four Mayan tribes ruled by four families under the leadership of Kukulcan. These four families were called Cocom, Tutul-xiu, Itz, and Chele. The first one, led by Kukulcan himself, ruled at Mayanspan which also became the capital of the Mayans. The second one called Tutul-xiu established its rule at Uxmal, the third one called Itz at Chichen Itza, and the fourth one called Chele at Izamal. Subsequent tribes and clans of the Mayans are said to have been derived from these four founding tribes.
There are a lot of Mayan tribes and clans which are usually identified with their distinct language or dialect in addition to their unique cultural practices. For instance, there is the Acatec Indian tribe with over 40,000 people in Guatemala and Mexico. These people speak the Acateco language which has been derived from another Mayan language called Kanjobal. The Achi Indian tribe speaks the Achi language and has strength of over 50,000 people in Guatemala. The Achi language is related to Quiche Maya and some linguists consider it the dialect of Quiche Maya.
The Aguacateco Mayan tribe consists of over 15,000 people, mainly living in Guatemala. Their native language is called Aguacateco or Awakatek and is closely related to the Ixil language. The Aguacateco people themselves call their language “qa’yol” which means “our word”. Another important Mayan tribe is called Kaqchikel whose people reside in the Midwestern highlands of Guatemala. The Kaqchikel language is one of the most widely spoken Mayan languages today, with over 400,000 speakers. Like other Mayan tribes, the culture of these people reflects a unique blend of traditional Mayan values and the Spanish culture.
People from the Ch’orti Mayan tribe reside in the communities and towns of southeastern Guatemala, northwestern Honduras, and northern El Salvador. They speak the Ch’orti language which has been derived from the Classic Choltian which is the language on the inscriptions in Copan. Over 15,000 people speak Ch’orti language, although most of them are bilingual and also speak fluent Spanish. The Chuj Mayan tribe has over 40,000 speakers in Guatemala and Mexico. They speak two dialects of the Chuj language called Northern Chuj and Southern Chuj. The two dialects are different in that Northern Chuj uses verb-object-subject word order while Southern Chuj uses verb-subject-object word order.
The Itza Mayan tribe is one of the largest Mayan tribes in the region and consists of over 750,000 people. Some people of this tribe speak the Itzaj language while most of them speak the related Yucatec Maya language. Despite some differences, the two languages are closely related and the speakers of one language can understand the others language as well. The Kanjobal Mayan tribe, also known as Q’anjob’al tribe, is mainly concentrated in Guatemala. Their language, the Kanjobal language, is spoken by about 80,000 people. The language is considered a member of Q’anjob’alan branch of the Mayan language family which in total includes 31 languages, two of which are now extinct.
Among other Mayan tribes, Ixil is noteworthy which has over 70,000 people in Guatemala. These people speak three dialects of the Ixil language called Chajul, Nebaj, and San Juan Cotzal, although some linguists also consider them three distinct languages. Like other Mayan tribes in the region, they have also faced considerable discrimination throughout the Colonial history. The Mayan tribe called Mam is mainly concentrated in Guatemala and Mexico with the Mam language spoken by over half a million people. Different communities speak different dialects of the same language.
The Mayan tribe called Mopan is composed of indigenous people mainly in Guatemala and Belize. They speak the Mopan language which is included among the Yucatec Maya languages. There are about 4,000 speakers of this language in Guatemala and over 8,000 speakers in Belize. The word order used in Mopan is verb-object-subject, although some dialects also use the subject-verb-object order. The tribe called Uspanteco is mainly located in the municipality of Uspantan. The Uspanteco language is related to K’iche’ language and commands over a million speakers. It is also one of the three Mayan languages which have developed contrastive tone.
Pokomchi Mayan tribe consists of over 90,000 native speakers in Guatemala. Pokomchi language has two dialects known as Eastern Pokomchi and Western Pokomchi which some linguists consider as two distinct languages. Both these dialects follow the subject-verb-object order. The Pokomam tribe is also mainly concentrated in Guatemala and has over 15,000 speakers of Pokomam language. This language has three dialects which are known as Eastern Pokomam, Southern Pokomam, and Central Pokomam. All these dialects follow the same subject-verb-object order. There are various other Mayan tribes as well in the Central American region. These tribes include Q’eqchi Mayan tribe, Quiche Mayan tribe, Tacaneco Mayan tribe, and others.
Mayan civilisation took birth in the Central American region and continued to dominate the region for several thousand years. According to Mayan mythological accounts, the civilisation was founded by four Mayan tribes under the leadership of a miraculous priest and ruler called Kukulcan. Today there are dozens of Mayan tribes who live in communities in different countries of Central America. These Mayan tribes usually speak distinct languages, most of which are derived from the classical Mayan languages.