The Sumu were once the most widespread populations on the Caribbean slope of Central America. According to folklorists, they were nomadic bands of hunters, fishers, and collectors, but early accounts indicate they were farmers. Reports of cannibalism probably stem from ceremonial vengeance rites. European contact brought dramatic population decline and dislocation owing to Old World diseases, warfare, and the slave trade, but little evidence exists to estimate the magnitude of change.
The first images of Sumu life come from colonial times. Men wore loincloths, and women short skirts. Probably ten or more groups existed, including the Tawahka, Panamaka, Silam, Kum, Bawihka, Prinsu, Yusku, Boa, Ulwa, and Kukra. They occupied a territory inland from the Río Patuca in Honduras south to the Río Escondido in Nicaragua, bordered by Pearl Lagoon to the east and the savannas/uplands to the west, largely coincident with the limits of Spanish influence. Men had long straight hair, sometimes shoulder length, whereas women wore their hair down their backs with cut bangs in front; both wore decorative necklaces and bracelets. Infanticide controlled birth defects. Wooden slats were applied to flatten an infant's head.
Spanish authorities never effectively controlled the Mosquitia region. Some frontier missions evangelized western Sumu settlements during the seventeenth century, but most Spanish campaigns into the region found no wealth, and some ended in disaster. Concurrently, the east coast attracted British privateers from Jamaica who entered into commercial relations with the Miskito. To exert control over the area, the privateers, whose aim was to exploit forest resources, recognized a succession of Miskito kings. The British enlisted Miskito war parties in their campaigns against the Spaniards, giving them firearms and a degree of sovereignty. Firearms gave Miskito warriors the advantage over the Sumu, whom they conquered, enslaved, or commercially incorporated into the "kingdom." The Sumu were obliged to pay tribute to Miskito kings and governors in the form of dugouts, deerskins, maize, cacao, rubber, and more. In the face of this situation, Sumu families retreated inland. Miskito reign declined and the British withdrew by 1860, when Mosquitia became part of Honduras and received "Reserve" status in Nicaragua. The Miskito Reserve was incorporated as a Nicaraguan department, Zelaya, in 1894. Surviving Sumu groups lived relatively isolated from outsiders and maintained cultural traditions.
Since colonial times, most Sumu groups—including the Yusku, Prinsu, Boa, Silam, Ku, and Bawihkas—have disappeared or assimilated into the expansive Miskito or Spanish-Indian (Ladino) cultures. The Ulwa, for example, once the most widespread group, were reduced by diseases and conflicts to only a few headwaters areas by the late 1700s. Conzemius (1932) found only about 150 Bawihka, and the Kukra were practically extinct by the 1920s.
Moravian missionaries, who began work on the Miskito Coast in 1849, launched evangelization efforts among the Sumu in 1910 (Oertzen et al. 1990, 41). Missionaries encouraged families to resettle around prayer-house sites or their homes. Musawás had eight lodges and a prayer house in 1922 (Oertzen et al. 1990, 308). A Honduran state education program agglomerated the Tawahka into a school-site settlement in 1916, but an epidemic forced its abandonment (Landero 1980). Despite good intentions, missionaries and educators were insensitive to indigenous identity, grouping Sumu with Miskito families in the same settlements and teaching them in English, Spanish, or the Miskito language.
The Marxist government of Nicaragua tried to bring about the political integration of the indigenous peoples after the Sandinista Revolution of 1979. Indian resistance forces demanded self-government and respect for their own traditions, fighting bloody battles against government troops during the 1980s. The Sandinistas occupied Musawás in 1982, killing and forcibly conscripting Sumu men, and began a mass evacuation of Sumu villagers from the Río Coco war zone. Some 3,000 moved to Honduran refugee camps; others stayed, living under threats of being killed, kidnapped, or forced into military service by one side or the other. The war destroyed Sumu community life in Nicaragua. Since 1985, most Sumu have been repatriated and have been resettling and rebuilding their former villages.
Though formerly integrationist, Nicaragua and Honduras have now begun to recognize the rights, identity, and political institutions of indigenous peoples. Nicaragua adopted the Autonomy Statute of 1987, establishing a regime of self-government, and Honduras is considering territorial status for its Sumu populations. Sumu identity and political clout are increasing because of international recognition of their role in conserving regional natural and cultural heritage. Nevertheless, road penetrations and agricultural colonization continually bring new conflicts, economies, and politics to Sumu territory.