The Tzeltal are an American Indian group concentrated in the central highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Contiguous Indian groups are the Tzotzil to the west, the Ch'ol to the north and northeast, and the Tojolab'al to the southeast. The Tzeltal and Tzotzil languages form the Tzeltalan Subdivision of the Mayan Language Family. Lexico-statistic studies indicate that these two languages probably became differentiated around A . D . 1200. The Tzeltal-speaking population numbers approximately 50,000 and is distributed through twelve municipios, with thirteen main communities. Of the latter, nine are mainly Tzeltal: Aguacatenango, Amatenango, Cancuc, Chanal, Chilon, Oxchuc, Tenejapa, Petalcingo, and Sitalá. The other four communities are about 65 to 80 percent Tzeltal speaking: Altamirano, Ocosingo, Villa de las Rosas, and Yajalón.
Ecologically, the Tzeltal region divides into three zones: north, central, and south. Some demographic and cultural variations are associated with these zones. More fundamentally, however, each Tzeltal community constitutes a distinct social and cultural unit, with its own lands, dialect forms, clothing style, kinship system, politicoreligious organization, and crafts.
The Tzeltal are farmers. Traditional Mesoamerican crops—maize, beans, squashes, and chilies—are the most important, but a variety of other crops, including wheat, manioc, sweet potatoes, cotton, chayote, and some fruits and vegetables, are also grown. Regional variations in ecological conditions lead to a certain amount of regional differentiation in agriculture. Domestic animals include poultry, pigs, burros, and cattle, but these animals are seldom eaten. Tzeltal villages are noted for particular craft specialties. Surplus produce and craft products are traded throughout the region through a system of regional periodic markets, and these markets link the Tzeltal to the wider Mexican economic system. Finally, many Tzeltal are dependent to some extent on working for wages in order to provision their households.
All of the Tzeltal communities have a similar structural pattern, with a town center, which may be heavily or thinly populated, and a number of communities, called parajes, which are scattered over the municipio. The town is the political, religious, and commercial center of the entire community. The town centers are divided into two sections, called barrios or calpules, each with its own local authorities and sometimes its own patron saint. In addition to its political and religious functions, each barrio traditionally was endogamous. Some of the other major aspects of traditional Tzeltal social organization that persist today in the more conservative communities are exogamous patrilineal sibs, patrilineal lineages within which land is inherited, and an Omaha type of kinship terminology. In the more acculturated communities, the sib-lineage system tends to disappear and to be replaced by a bilateral system similar to that characterizing Ladino society. Although there are some extended families, the nuclear family is the basic pattern.
The Tzeltal religious system is a blend of Catholic and indigenous elements. Annual community ceremonies are held in honor of particular saints. As in most Mesoamerican Indian communities, officeholders in the civil-religious hierarchy are in charge of these celebrations as well as the more secular village affairs. Shamanism and witchcraft are also found among the Tzeltal.
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