The Pipil are an indigenous people who live in western El Salvador. Their language is a dialect of Nahuatl called Nahuat or Pipil. Pipil oral tradition holds that they migrated out of central Mexico. However, in general, their mythology is more closely related to the mythology of the Maya peoples who are their near neighbors.

Synonymy and language

The name Pipil is the most commonly encountered term in the anthropological and linguistic literature. This exonym is from the closely related Nahuatl word -pil "son, boy" (Nahuatl is a dialect complex that includes languages and dialects of these such as Classical Nahuatl, Milpa Alta Nahuatl, Tetelcingo Nahuatl, Matlapa, Isthmus-Mecayapan Nahuat, among others).

The Pipil speak the endangered Uto-Aztecan language Nawat, also known as Pipil in English, and as náhuat in Spanish (the older form nahuate is no longer current).

Nahuatl -pil is cognate with Nawat pi:pil "boy". The autonym in the Nawat language is simply Nawat which is related to the Classical Nahuatl word nauatl.

For most authors the term Pipil (Nawat) is used to refer to the language in only Central America (i.e. excluding Mexico). However, the term (along with the synonymous Eastern Nahuatl) has also been used to refer to Nahuatl lects in the southern Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas that like Pipil have reduced the earlier /tl/ sound to a /t/. The varieties in these three areas do share greater similarities with Nawat than the other Nahuatl varieties do (suggesting a closer connection); however, Campbell (1985) considers Nawat distinct enough to be considered a language separate from the Nahuatl complex, thus rejecting an Eastern Nahuatl subgrouping that includes Nawat.

Finally, for other authors the term Aztec is used to refer to all closely languages in this region as a single language, not distinguishing Nawat from Nahuatl (and sometimes not even separating out Pochutec). The classification of Nahuan that Campbell argues for (1985, 1997)has been susperceded by newer and more detailed classifications. And currently the widely accepted classifications by Lastra de Suarez(1986) and Canger (1988), see Pipil as a nahuan dialect of the eastern periphery.

  • Uto-Aztecan 5000 BP*
    • Shoshonean (Northern Uto-Aztecan)
    • Sonoran**
    • Aztecan 2000 BP (a.k.a. Nahuan)
      • Pochutec — Coast of Oaxaca
      • General Aztec (Nahuatl)
        • Western periphery
        • Eastern Periphery
          • Pipil
          • Sierra de Puebla
          • Isthmus-Mecayapan
        • Huasteca
        • Central dialects

Dialects of Pipil include the following :

  • Ataco
  • Tacuba
  • Santa Catarina Mazaguat
  • Santo Domigo de Guzmán
  • Nahuizalco
  • Izalco
  • Teotepeque
  • Jicalapa
  • Comazagua
  • Chiltiupan
  • Cuisnahuat

Today Nawat is seldom used and only by a few elderly speakers in Sonsonate and Ahuachapán departments. Cuisnahuat and Santo Domingo de Guzmán have the highest concentration of speakers. Campbell's 1985 estimate (fieldwork 1970-1976) was 200 remaining speakers although as many as 2000 speakers have been recorded in official Mexican reports. Gordon (2005) reports only 20 speakers (from 1987). The exact number of speakers is difficult to determine because native speakers do not wish to be identified due to local conflict, such as the matanza ("massacre") of 1932 and the laws passed that made speaking Nawat illegal. The varieties of Nawat in Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama are now extinct.


The prehistoric and modern Pipil are from at least three separate cultural and language groups that were loosely joined by conquest and later by culture . The earliest, a subgroup of a nomadic people known as the Nahua, migrated into Central America about 3000 B.C. The Nahua later came under the influence of Maya culture, perhaps through immigration and conquest. Ruins of limestone pyramids built by the Maya between A.D. 100 and 1000 are found in western El Salvador. Maya culture and language dominated this area of Mesoamerica until the ninth century A.D. Nahua/Maya civilization did not achieve the complexity found in the Maya heartland in Mexico and Guatemala, but appears to have been vital on a smaller scale .

A third group, designated as the Izalco Pipil, are believed to have migrated into the region late in the tenth century, occupying lands west of the Lempa River during the 1000s . Legend and archaeological research suggest these migrants were refugees from conflict within the Toltec empire to the north . These people were ethnically and culturally related to the Toltecs , as well as to the earlier Nahua and the later Aztecs, and spoke a closely related Aztecan language, today called Nawat.

Most of the migrant Pipil settled in what is now El Salvador. The Pipil's only significant Guatemalan settlement was Escuintla. The Pipil found a population of mostly Maya culture and/or ethnicity, and a country that had many natural resources. The Pipil organized a nation known as Cuzcatlán, with at least two centralized city/states that may have been subdivided into smaller principalities. They enveloped some groups of the Mayan-speaking people, sometimes through conquest, but often through cooperation and trade. Other Mayan-speaking peoples remained independent. The Pipil introduced the cults of Xipe Totec who expected human sacrifice. The Pipil were also competent workers in cotton textiles, and developed a wide ranging trade network for woven goods as well as agricultural products.

By the time the Spanish arrived, the Pipil controlled almost all of western El Salvador, and a large portion of the central area up to the banks of the river Lempa. There were four important branches of the Pipil:

  • The Cuzcatlecos, who were a leading community in El Salvador, had their capital in Cuzcatlán (now the town of Antiguo Cuscatlán in greater San Salvador) .
  • The Izalcos, who were very wealthy due to their great cocoa production .
  • The Nonualcos, of the central region, who were renowned for their love of war .
  • The Mazuahas, who were dedicated to raising the White Tailed Deer (now nearly extinct) .

Although they were primarily an agricultural people, some Pipil urban centers developed into present-day cities, such as Sonsonate and Ahuachapan. The Pipil communities of Cuzcatlán and Tecpan Izalco in El Salvador were founded in approximately A.D. 1050 . The ruins of Cihiuatan, those in Aguilares, and those close to the Guazapa volcano are considered among the most notable remains of Pipil civilization.

Migration and legend

Pipil may refer to a branch of the pre-Columbian Toltec civilization, which flourished in Central Mexico around the close of the 1st millennium AD . The Toltec capital, Tula , also known as Tollan and located in the present-day state of Hidalgo) is the most significant archaeological site associated with the Toltec. The apogee of Tula's reach post-dates that of the great city of Teotihuacán, which lies further to the southeast and quite close to the modern Mexico City. Tradition, mythology and archaeology strongly suggest these people arrived in El Salvador around the year A.D. 1000 as a result of the collapse of the Tala . The Tala, apparently a Toltec subgroup or family line, gained power or influence in the Toltec civilization at the fall of Teotihuacan . This group was ultimately defeated in a bloody civil war over succession to the throne of the Toltec capital Tula . The defeated group had little choice but to leave Mexico and emigrate to Central America . Tula fell a short time later, circa A.D. 1070, while under the reign of Huemac-Quetzalcoatl .

The faction that lost the war was led by the celebrated hero Topiltzin, son of Mixcoatl . His followers thought he was a reincarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl, and used the name as a title . According to tradition, Topiltzin Ce Acatl Quetzalcoatl founded a sanctuary to the god Nuictlan in the region of 'Guija Lake' . Later, he arrived at the now ruined Maya site of Copán in Honduras, and subsequently went to the environs of the present Nicaragua where he established the people known as Nicarao .

Spanish conquest

In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadores ventured into Central America from Mexico, then known as the Spanish colony of New Spain. Spanish efforts to extend their dominion to the area that would be known as El Salvador were firmly resisted by the Pipil and their remaining Mayan-speaking neighbors. Pedro de Alvarado, a lieutenant of Hernan Cortes, led the first effort by Spanish forces in June 1524. Led by a war leader tradition calls Atlacatl, the indigenous people defeated the Spaniards and forced them to withdraw to Guatemala. Two subsequent expeditions were required --the first in 1525, followed by a smaller group in 1528-- to bring the Pipil under Spanish control.

Modern Pipil

The Pipil have had a strong influence on the current culture of El Salvador, with a large portion of the population claiming ancestry from this and other indigenous groups. Ninety percent of today's Salvadorans are mestizos (people of mixed native and European descent), with only nine percent of unmixed European ancestry. About 1% is of pure indigenous ancestry. A few Pipil still speak Nawat and follow traditional ways of life. The traditional groups live mainly in the southwestern highlands near the Guatemalan border.


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