Linguistic and archaeological data indicate that the Tzeltalan ancestors of the contemporary Tzotzil and Tzeltal moved into their present habitat in Chiapas by A . D . 300, perhaps as early as 100 B . C . Over time, they differentiated into Tzotzil speakers and Tzeltal speakers, and ultimately into the groups that became incorporated into the municipalities that were established by the Spaniards. Spanish chronicles report that Aztec traders came to Zinacantan in the decades before the Conquest to trade for quetzal feathers and amber, which were prized in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán.
The Spanish conquerors reached the highlands of Chiapas in 1523. The first Spanish colony, Villa Real, was founded first at Chiapa de Corzo and soon moved to the cooler site of San Cristóbal de las Casas in 1528. Whereas the neighboring Chamula fought ferociously against the Spanish forces led by Diego de Mazariegos, the Zinacantecos appear to have yielded to, and later assisted, the Spanish penetration. Specific mentions of Zinacantan in the early post-Conquest period emphasize their trading activities and religious rituals. The trading of salt from wells near Ixtapa, northwest of Zinacantan Center, which was then resold in markets throughout the Chiapas highlands, was probably pre-Hispanic and continued during colonial and modern times. A Spanish chronicler described Zinacantan as a pueblo with "an infinite number of gods; they worshiped the sun and offered sacrifices to it, and to the full rivers, to the springs, to the trees of heavy foliage, and to the high hills they gave incense and gifts .. . their ancestors discovered a stone bat and considered it God and worshiped it" (Ximenez 1929-1931, 360).
During the colonial period, Zinacantan was subject to missionary activity by the Catholic friars, and many Zinacantecos became peons on the large estates that had evolved from the earlier encomiendas owned by the descendants of the conquering Spaniards. In 1592 Zinacantan was called "El Pueblo de Santo Domingo," but by 1792 the community was called "San Lorenzo Zinacantan," signaling that Saint Lawrence had replaced Saint Dominic as patron saint. Chiapas was part of Guatemala until (following Mexico's independence from Spain) it seceded and joined Mexico in 1824. When President Benito Juarez came to power in 1863, the Leyes de Reforma stripped both the church and the Indian towns of their corporate lands. Many Zinacantecos lost their ancestral lands and were forced into debt-indentured labor on haciendas owned by the Ladinos in the lowlands. These Ladinos, who were descendants of the Spanish conquerors interbred with Indians over the centuries, speak Spanish, live mainly in the towns and cities, and control the economic and political system of Chiapas.
The three most important recent historical events in their impact on Zinacantan have been: the ejido program stemming from the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921) which provided long-delayed additional farming lands for the Zinacantecos beginning in 1940; the construction of the Pan-American Highway (completed in 1954), which passes through the municipio of Zinacantan and provides access to markets by truck and bus; and the establishment of the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (National Indian Institute) center in 1950 in San Cristóbal de las Casas, which was followed by various federal programs to improve the quality of Indian life in the highlands of Chiapas. Zinacantecos are aware of the 1992 provisions allowing the privatization of ejidos; there has been no immediate move to change the status of their landholdings.