Who are the T’zutujil people of Guatemala?

T’zutujil people of Guatemala - Jürg Widmer Probst

On the banks of one of the most beautiful lakes in Guatemala live the Tz’utujil people. Guatemala is a relatively small country compared with others, but it has a long, rich history.

Today, it’s still home to 24 different ethnic groups incorporated within the Mayan population. The Tz’utujil people are one of them. Others include Garifunas, Zinca and the Ladinos. Together, these ethnic groups form the indigenous Native American population in Guatemala.

Are there many T’zutujil people in Guatemala?

There are approximately 100,000 Tz’utujil people living on the banks of Lake Atitlan, right up in the highlands. Sometimes Tz’utujil is spelled Tzutujil, Tzutuhil or Sutujil, so if you see different spellings when you’re reading about Guatemala, be aware it’s the same ethnic group.

Lake Atitlan is a major tourist attraction in non-pandemic years. This is largely due to its location in the stunning Sierra Madre mountain range. The lake is also famous for being the deepest lake in the whole of Central America, not to mention one of the most stunning.

Its depths reach 340 metres and the lake itself goes on for more than 50 square miles, making for an impressive site. When tourists began visiting Guatemala in the 19th century, the lake came in for much attention. For example, German explorer Alexander von Humboldt said that Lake Atitlan is “the most beautiful lake in the world”, and we can assume that by then he’d seen a few.

Novelist Aldous Huxley was equally impressed. When he wrote Beyond the Mexique Bay, his travel book of 1934, he said that Lake Atitlan is as beautiful as Italy’s famous Lake Como. He said: “Atitlan is Lake Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes – it’s really too much of a good thing.”

Daily life is lived along traditional cultural lines

But Lake Atitlan is about more than beautiful scenery. It’s also a natural central point for a number of Maya ethnic groups. This includes the Tz’utujil people, who are known for still living in a very traditional way today. People in this region generally stick close to traditional cultural and religious practices that have been going on for centuries.

The Tz’utujil language is still spoken today and is one of the 21 Mayan languages that are officially recognised in the country. Around six million Mayan people spread across Mesoamerica and north Central America speak a Mayan language. As well as in Guatemala, they are spoken in Belize, Mexico and Honduras. They are also some of the most documented ancient languages in the world, which is great news for people who want to truly understand the region.

Today’s Mayan languages stem from Proto-Mayan. This was spoken more than 5,000 years ago before emerging into six defined branches of language:

  1. Huastecan
  2. Quichean
  3. Qanjobalan
  4. Yucatecan
  5. Ch’olan Tzeltalan.
  6. Mamean

How long have the Tz’utujhil Mayans been around?

The Tz’utujhil Mayans go all the way back to what we call the post-classic period of the Mayan civilisation. This was between 900 and 1500AD. Currently, they live in towns and villages surrounding Lake Atitlan. These towns are called:

  • Panabaj
  • Santiago Atitlán
  • San Pedro La Laguna
  • San Juan La Laguna
  • San Pablo La Laguna
  • San Marcos La Laguna
  • Tzanchaj

There are also a few who live in the town of San Lucas Tolima, which is further away. While this sounds like a collectively huge area, it’s far smaller than the territory in which they used to live. The Tz’utujhil people lost most of their land in 1523. This followed the teaming up pf Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado with another ethnic group, the Kaqchikel people. A battle ensued in Panajachel and the Tz’utujhil lost much of their land and control of the lake.

Today, the region’s indigenous people ensure they continue to live traditionally. While most of the people work in the tourism sector (in normal years, of course), others cover the farming sector. They still use traditional farming methods to grow the staples that have been grown there for centuries, including beans, squash, maize and coffee.

There is a thriving artistic and creative industry there too, which hangs off the tourism sector. A number of local communities use their art to express their traditions, religious beliefs and way of life. People live in municipia around the lake. These communities are the centre of the village and all have different traditions and customs, so for the visitor there is so much to absorb.