In the century prior to the Spanish Conquest, the Chontal Maya were prosperous, and the area was well populated. The Chontal occupied a strategic economic position, playing an important part in the trade carried on between the Gulf coast and the Caribbean, across the base of the Yucatán Peninsula. Yucatan traded salt, cotton cloth, and slaves. In exchange, cacao, obsidian, precious metals, feathers, and other luxury items were imported by the Yukateko from Tabasco and the Caribbean coast to the southeast. Tabasco's population included not only native Chontal Maya but also representatives from other Mesoamerican cultures. For example, Nahuatl speakers from central Mexico established several commercial centers in Tabasco, and many Chontal speakers were bilingual. Zoque- and Yucatec Maya-speaking towns were also present in Tabasco.
After the Spanish Conquest, Tabasco lost its strategic economic position. Instead of being prosperous traders, the Chontal became peons, paying cacao, maize, and chickens as tribute to their Spanish overlords. As the Tabascan population declined, so did tribute income, agricultural production, the labor supply, and trade. Tabasco's economy suffered an economic depression that lasted through most of the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century.
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been a period of continuous growth in population, territorial expansion, settlement, and economic activity in Tabasco. Economic prosperity returned to Tabasco with the exploitation of petroleum in the twentieth century. The ratio of Chontal speakers to the total population in Tabasco is steadily declining, however, and areas inhabited by the Chontal Maya in Tabasco have shrunk considerably in the last hundred years.