Although the Lake Atitlán region has been inhabited for at least several thousand years, the Tz'utujil did not enter the area until the Late Postclassic period ( A . D . 1200-1524). According the ancient K'iche' book Popol Vuh, the Tz'utujil were the first of a wave of conquering groups to arrive in the area during that period. The point of origin of those migrants remains conjectural, but it was probably the Campeche/Tabasco region of Mexico. Until the subsequent arrival of the Kaqchikel, the entire Lake Atitlán region was under Tz'utujil control. In addition, the Tz'utujil had extensive landholdings in the agriculturally rich coastal and piedmont zones. At the time of the Spanish arrival in 1524, much of the former Tz'utujil territory had been seized by the more numerous Kaqchikel. Led by Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish force exploited preexisting regional hostility, enlisting the Kaqchikel as allies in his conquest of the Tz'utujil.
In 1547 the Spanish began to congregate formerly autonomous and dispersed Tz'utujil communities into the municipality configuration that continues to characterize local social organization. That process, called congregación, was designed to aid in the political administration and religious instruction of the indigenous population. Importantly, the initial disruption of Tz'utujil social existence did not entail the significant loss of land. Rather, exploitation was first in the form of encomiendas and later repartimientos. Those extractive mechanisms entitled the Spaniards to tribute and/or to force the Tz'utujil to purchase overpriced goods. Two other factors were particularly important in defining the Tz'utujil colonial experience. The first was the catastrophic population decline noted above (see "Demography"). Hardest hit was the coastal zone, where disease contributed to the virtual abandonment of the region by the Tz'utujil. The second factor was Guatemala's chronic economic stagnation and its anemic capacity to engage in the global economy. As a result, the colonizers tended to remain in a few Spanish centers, lessening acculturation pressure in peripheral areas such as that of the Tz'utujil. In the late nineteenth century, however, a whole new dynamic was to be unleashed when Guatemala began the large-scale production of coffee. To meet the requirements of that crop, extensive Tz'utujil lands were expropriated. That loss, combined with a rebounding population, led to the landlessness that characterizes contemporary Tz'utujil existence. This shortage of land has not only undermined agriculture as the primary means of subsistence but has contributed to decades of Guatemalan civil war.