At the time of the Spanish Conquest, the Mixe-Zoque Language Group and speakers of Mayan languages were south of a line running from the coastal plains of the Gulf of Mexico through the present-day city of Tapachula, on the Pacific Coast. Their earliest known ancestors lived on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, some 5,800 years ago. This coastal culture is the first known in Mesoamerica to transform its mode of production from hunting-fishing-gathering to maize cultivation. Migration toward the Gulf of Mexico could have been associated with the rise of the so-called Olmec culture which, according to glottochronological reconstructions, could have shared a language with the inhabitants of the Chiapas coast. This was the vehicle for the transmission of names of cultigens like cacao and beans.
When the Spaniards arrived in 1523, the Zoque were divided into chiefdoms, some independent and others subjects of the Nahua and Chiapas Indians. The disparate geographical distribution of the Zoque led to differentiated economic development; the warm lands were more appropriate for cultivation and better connected commercially by riverine navigation. Regional differences were maintained after the arrival of the conquerors, who imposed new political and economic concepts on the subjugated territories. The policies of evangelization and tributary obligations, first to encomenderos and later to the Spanish Crown, affected agricultural labor, which was based on maize for subsistence and on cochineal, cotton, sugar, and livestock raising for trade with the colonists. Mistreatment and the use of the Zoque as beasts of burden—they were even branded to serve as slaves—provoked several uprisings against the ruling Spaniards in 1693 and 1722.
Cofradías (confraternities), a Spanish institution transferred to indigenous communities, were the center of the social and religious life of the Zoque until the establishment of local governments ( ayuntamientos constitucionales ) in the 1920s.
The rapid loss of Zoque culture because of Spanish pressure was especially felt in the Central Chiapas Depression and Gulf piedmont. Zoque culture survived in the Sierra de Pantepec and surrounding countryside. Zoque culture was similar to that of other Mesoamerican peoples; it was based on the cultivation of maize, beans, and squashes, and on religious practices wherein natural elements—the earth, the mountains, the sun, the moon—were objects of worship.
In spite of the breakup of their communities by the Spanish, the Zoque kept up their contacts with their Maya neighbors through commercial and ritual exchange. In the 1990s Zoque often worked temporarily outside their communities. The contacts with Spaniards and various neighboring groups and the variations in their economies and dialects led to the dispersal of, and an eventual variation in, Zoque culture. The unifying mark of "Zoqueness" today may possibly be a common worldview and a common linguistic origin.