The origin of the Chinantec is unknown. It is possible that they migrated from the west near the Tehuacán Valley to their present location as recently as A . D . 1000. By the fifteenth century Chinantec settlements were concentrated in the well-watered, fertile lowland valleys near present-day Valle Nacional. The Chinantla was successfully invaded in 1454-1455 by Nahuatl speakers and then again in the early sixteenth century by the Spanish. Three closely spaced epidemics of European-introduced diseases soon decimated an estimated 80 percent of the Chinantec population, and by the 1570s many Chinantec lived in dispersed hamlets of eleven to fifteen persons. To facilitate political control and religious conversion, colonial authorities forcibly congregated these Chinantec in concentrated communities in the highlands. A great simplification in social structure was one result. Most of the Chinantec region was not held in encomienda but instead administered directly by the crown. Although the Spaniards had hoped to find vast deposits of gold there, the area came instead to be valued for cotton and cochineal. By the nineteenth century the best lands had been taken by foreign companies, and many lowland Chinantec were again displaced. Even after the 1910 Mexican Revolution, coffee, banana, and tobacco production remained in foreign hands. Development programs instituted since 1947 by the Papaloapan River Commission displaced other lowland Chinantec.
The Chinantec region is contiguous with Zapotec communities to the south and those of the Cuicatec to the west, Mazatec to the north, and Mixe to the southeast.