The first descriptions of Chontal settlements were recorded by Spanish chroniclers. As early as 1579, Tabasco was described in two reports written by Alfaro Santa Cruz and other officials of the Villa de Tabasco. Their reports included a detailed map of the province. At the time of the Conquest, the most heavily populated part of Tabasco was the Chontalpa, a region that included a group of twenty-three Chontal-speaking towns. Other Chontal towns were located by the coast and along rivers, grouped together in provinces. Each province had a center surrounded by subordinate hamlets.
Another key region of Chontal speakers was the province of Acalan, located on the Río Candelaria where it flows into the Laguna de Términos, in the modern state of Campeche, Mexico. With its seventy-six towns and villages, the province of Acalan was well populated. The late pre-Columbian and early colonial history of Acalan is described in the Maldonado-Paxbolon Papers.
The colonial period produced not only a population decline but also a change in population distribution. Most of the coastal areas were abandoned during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, because of raids and looting by pirates. During the height of the pirates' power, most of the people in Tabasco lived in the sierra region and in the Chontalpa. As pirate incursions ceased in the second half of the eighteenth century, many inhabitants of the sierra region returned to the coastal areas.
Today, Chontal speakers are clustered in the Tabascan municipios of Centla, Macuspana, Nacajuca, and Tacotalpa, and the indigenous language that is spoken in western Campeche is Yucatec Maya.