Recent archaeological studies place the arrival of Maya speakers into Chiapas around 100 B . C . Theories suggesting that the immigrants may have come from the Chuj region in Guatemala are not yet supported by archaeological findings. Dispersion over the area appears to have been relatively rapid. Highland Tzotzil and Tzeltal lived in proximity with Zoque groups to the west and other Maya groups to the north (Chontal and Ch'ol) and east (Tojolab'al and Chuj). Aggressive Chiapanec groups entered the region about AD. 900, settling to the south and constantly pressuring Tzeltal and Tzotzil towns. During the late Postclassic period ( A . D . 900 to 1250), central Mexico strongly influenced highland Chiapas's political ideology, organization, religion, and other aspects of its culture. The area functioned as regional intermediary of an extensive network of trade between Guatemala, Tabasco, and central Mexico.
Upon the arrival of the Spanish, highland Chiapas was divided into small, warring petty states. Chamula was a large population center. The Chamula built a fort to confront the invaders, whom they attacked with bows and arrows, slingshots, stone-tipped spears, boiling water, and boiling resin. Aided by Zinacantec warriors, Bernal Díaz del Castillo besieged the town and finally succeeded in entering the fort and overwhelming its defenders. In order to control the indigenous population, the Spanish founded Ciudad Real (now San Cristóbal de las Casas) in 1528.
Since that time, the city has been a center of Ladino (non-Indian) political and commercial domination in the highlands. The defiant attitude of the Chamula toward the dominant society has remained constant for five centuries. Exploited and oppressed through exaggerated tribute and taxes and forced-labor arrangements, the Chamula managed to keep alive central elements of their culture and identity that have helped them resist invasive forces. When the abuses of Spanish-colonial, and later, Mexican societies became intolerable, the Chamula joined other indigenous groups to rebel openly against their oppressors. Major rebellions took place in 1712 and 1867, when the insurgents struggled for the right to their own religion and better living conditions. The rebellions were quelled, but the insurgents were able to secure a measure of religious freedom. The Zapatista rebellion of 1994 focused international attention on the plight of indigenous peoples in Chiapas. Although the Chamula did not participate directly in this uprising (in view of the alliance of the Chamula oligarchy with the ruling Mexican Institutional Revolutionary party), many Chamula sympathize with the movement and recognize that their situation will be deeply affected by the after-math of this struggle.
The Chamula maintain friendly relations with people from nearby indigenous communities such as Zinacantan, Chenalhó, and Tenejapa, with whom they share many cultural traits. They visit these and other communities to trade and attend their celebrations. Most of their interaction with other indigenous people and with Ladinos takes place in San Cristóbal de las Casas, where they go to sell their produce or woven goods, buy necessities, and worship. Ladinos despise indigenous people and usually mistreat and humiliate them, making them feel unwelcome in the city. To combat this situation, the Chamula utilize quiet resistance, forbidding Ladinos to take up residence within their municipio and making their own presence in San Cristóbal felt in ever larger numbers, as more of them seek economic opportunities there.