K'iche' kingdom of Q'umarkaj

Q'umarkaj (Utatlán)
Capital Q'umarkaj
Languages Classical K'iche'
Government Monarchy
   ~12251250 (first) B'alam Kitze
  ~1500–1524 (last) Oxib Keh
   Established c.1225
   Conquered 1524
Succeeded by
Viceroyalty of New Spain

The K'iche' kingdom of Q'umarkaj was a state in the highlands of modern-day Guatemala which was founded by the K'iche' (Quiché) Maya in the thirteenth century, and which expanded through the fifteenth century until it was conquered by Spanish and Nahua forces led by Pedro de Alvarado in 1524.

The K'iche' kingdom reached its height under the king K'iq'ab who ruled from the fortified town of Q'umarkaj (also called by its Nahuatl name Utatlán) near the modern town of Santa Cruz del Quiché. During his rule the K'iche' ruled large areas of highland Guatemala extending into Mexico, and they subdued other Maya peoples such as the Tz'utujil, Kaqchikel and Mam, as well as the Nahuan Pipil people.

Historical sources

The history of the Quiché Kingdom is described in a number of documents written in postcolonial times both in Spanish and in indigenous languages such as Classical K'iche' and Kaqchikel. Important sources include the Popol Vuh which, apart from the well-known mythology, also contains a history and genealogy of the Kaweq lineage such as the Título de Totonicapán. Information from these can be crosschecked with the Annals of the Cakchiquels recounting the history of the Kaqchikel vassals and later enemies of the K'iche'. A number of other títulos such as those of Sacapulas, the C'oyoi, Nijaib and Tamub titles each recount K'iche' history from the viewpoint of a specific K'iche' lineage. Other sources include those written by conquistadors and ecclesiastics, and administrative documents of the colonial administration.


Map of Southern Guatemala in the Postclassic period - showing the locations of important K'iche' urban centers (in black) and the surrounding ethnic groups (in white).


The Mayan K'iche' people had lived in the highlands of Guatemala since 600 BCE but the documented history of the K'iche' kingdom began when foreigners from the Mexican Gulf coast entered the highlands via the Pasión River around 1200 CE. These invaders are known as the "k'iche' forefathers" in the documental sources, because they founded what would be the three ruling lineages of the K'iche' kingdom. The invading peoples were composed of seven tribes: the three K'iche' lineages (the Nima K'iche', the Tamub and the Ilok'ab), the forefathers of the Kaqchikel, Rabinal, Tz'utujil peoples, and a seventh tribe called the Tepew Yaqui. Not much is known about the ethnicity of the invaders: the ethnohistoric sources state that they were unable to communicate with the indigenous K'iche' when they arrived, and that they were yaquies, meaning that they spoke Nahuatl. J.E.S. Thompson identified them as Mexicanized Putún merchants. But Carmack (1968) is of the opinion that they were probably bilingual Nahuatl and Chontal Maya speakers who were influenced by Toltec culture and arrived as conquerors rather than merchants. It is well documented that Nahuan influence in the K’iche’ language already occurs in this period, and the names of the "forefathers" are better understandable as coming from Chontal and Nahuatl than from K'iche'.[1] The K’iche’ forefathers brought with them their tribal Gods: the Patron God of the K’iche’ tribe was the sky god Tohil.

Foundation (c. 1225 1400)

Ajpop of Q'umarkaj
(ruling periods estimated by generations)
B'alam Kitze ~12251250
K'ok'oja ~12501275
E, Tz'ikin ~12751300
Ajkan ~13001325
K'okaib' ~13251350
K'onache ~13501375
K'otuja ~13751400
Quq'kumatz ~14001435
K'iq'ab' ~14351475
Vahxak' i-Kaam ~14751500
Oxib Keh ~15001524

The "forefathers" conquered the indigenous highland peoples and founded a capital at Jakawitz in the Chujuyup valley. During this period the Kaqchikel, Rabinal and Tzjutujil tribes were allies of the K'iche' and subordinate to K'iche' rulership. In these days the languages of the four peoples were largely similar but as contact between the groups waned, and finally became enmity, the languages diverged becoming the distinct modern languages.[2]

The K'iche' people itself was also composed of three separate lineages, the K'iche', the Tamub' and the Ilok'ab'. Each lineage served a different function, the Nima K'iche' were the ruling class, the Tamub were probably traders and the Ilok'ab warriors. Each lineage was further divided into sublineages which also each had their specific functions: The K'iche' sublineages were Ajaw K'iche', Kaweq, Nijaib and Sakiq. The Tamub sublineages were Ekoamak' and Kakoj. The Ilok'ab sublineages were the Siq'a and Wanija.

After conquering and settling Jakawitz under Balam Kitze, the K'iche' now ruled by Tz'ikin expanded into Rabinal territory and subdued the Poqomam with the help of the Kaqchikel. Then they went southwest to found Pismachi where a large ritual center was built. At Pismachi, both K'oqaib and K'onache ruled, but soon internal conflicts between the lineages erupted, and finally the Ilok'abs left Pismachi and settled in a nearby town called Mukwitz Chilok'ab. During the rule of the ahpop ("man of the mat" - the title of the K'iche ruler) K'otuja the Ilok'abs revolted against the leadership of the Nima K'iche' lineage but were soundly defeated. K'otuja expanded the influence of the K'iche's and tightened the political control over the Kaqchikel and Tz'utujil peoples by marrying his family members into their ruling lineages.

Quq'kumatz and K'iq'ab (c. 1400 1475)

The Guatemalan highlands - location of the extensive Kingdom of the K'iche'

Under K'otujas's son Quq'kumatz the Nima K'iche lineage also left Pismachi and settled nearby at Q'umarkaj, "place of the rotten cane". Quq'kumatz became known as the greatest "Nagual" lord of the K'iche' and is claimed to have been able to magically transform himself into snakes, eagles, jaguars and even blood. He could fly into the sky or visit the underworld, Xibalba. Q'uq'umatz greatly expanded the K'iche' kingdom, first from Pismachi' and later from Q'umarkaj.[3] At this time, the K'iche' were closely allied with the Kaqchikels.[4] Q'uq'umatz sent his daughter to marry the lord of the K'oja, a Maya people based in the Cuchumatan mountains, somewhere between Sacapulas and Huehuetenango.[5] Instead of marrying her and submitting to the K'iche'-Kaqchikel alliance, Tekum Sik'om, the K'oja king, killed the offered bride.[6] This act initiated a war between the K'iche'-Kaqchikel of Q'umarkaj and the K'oja.[6] Q'uq'umatz died in the resulting battle against the K'oja.[6]

With the death of his father in battle against the K'oja, his son and heir K'iq'ab swore vengeance, and two years later he led the K'iche'-Kaqchikel alliance against his enemies, together with the Ajpop K'amha (king-elect).[7] The K'iche'-led army entered K'oja at first light, killed Tekum Sik'om and captured his son.[7] K'iq'ab recovered the bones of his father and returned to Q'umarkaj with many prisoners and all the jade and metal that the K'oja possessed, after conquering various settlements in the Sacapulas area, and the Mam people near Zaculeu.[7] During the reign of K'iq'ab, who was particularly warlike, the K'iche' kingdom expanded to include Rabinal, Cobán and Quetzaltenango, and extended as far west as the Okos River, near the modern border between the Chiapas coast of Mexico and Guatemalan Pacific coast.[7] With Kaqchikel help, the eastern frontier of the kingdom was pushed as far as the Motagua River and south as far as Escuintla.[8]

In 1470 a rebellion shook Q'umarkaj during a great celebration that saw a great gathering that included representatives of all the most important highland peoples.[8] Two sons of K'iq'ab together with some of his vassals rebelled against their king, killing many high ranking lords, Kaqchikel warriors and members of the Kaweq lineage.[9] The rebels tried to kill K'iq'ab himself but he was defended by sons loyal to him in Pakaman, on the outskirts of the city.[9] As a result of the rebellion, K'iq'ab was forced to make concessions to the rebelling K'iche' lords.[10] The newly empowered K'iche' lords turned against their Kaqchikel allies, who were forced to flee Q'umarkaj and found their own capital at Iximche.[10]

After the death of king K'iq'ab in 1475 the K'iche' were engaged in warfare against both the Tz'utujils and the Kaqchikels, perhaps in an attempt to recover the former power of Q'umarkaj.[11]

Decline and conquest

In the period after the death of K'iq'ab the weakened K'iche' continuously struggled against the Kaqchikel, the Tz'utujil, the Rabinal, and the Pipil. Under the leadership of Tepepul the K'iche tried to launch a sneak attack on Iximché, whose inhabitants were weakened because of a famine, but the Kaqchikel got word of the attack and defeated the K'iche army. Constant warfare ensued until 1522 when a peace accord was made between the two peoples. Although the K'iche also experienced some military successes in this period, for example in the subordinations of the Rabinal and the peoples on the Pacific coast of Chiapas (Soconusco), the K'iche' didn't achieve the same level of hegemony as they had experienced in earlier times. From around 1495 the Aztec empire which was then at its height in central Mexico began asserting influence on the Pacific coast and into the Guatemalan highlands. Under the Aztec Tlatoani Ahuitzotl the Soconusco province which was then paying tribute to the K'iche' was conquered by the Aztecs, and when Aztec pochteca (long distance traders) later arrived at Q'umarkaj the K'iche' ruler 7 Noj was so embittered that he ordered them to leave his kingdom, not to return. However, in 1510 when Aztec emissaries from Moctezuma II arrived in Q'umarkaj to request tribute from the K'iche they saw themselves forced to accept vassalage to the Aztecs. From 1510 to 1521 Aztec influence at Q'umarkaj increased and the K'iche lord 7 Noj also married two daughters of the Aztec ruler, further cementing the Aztec lordship, by becoming his son in-law. During this period Q'umarkaj also became known as Utatlán, the Nahuatl translation of the placename. When the Aztecs were defeated by the Spanish in 1521 they sent messengers to the K'iche' ruler that he should prepare for battle.

Statue of Tekum Uman in modern-day Quetzaltenango.

Before the arrival of the Spanish led army, the K'iche' were struck by the diseases the Europeans had brought to the Americas. The Kaqchikels allied themselves to the Spaniards in 1520, before they had even arrived in Guatemala, and they also told of their enemies the K'iche and asked for assistance against them. Cortés sent messengers to Q'umarkaj and requested their peaceful submission to Spanish rule and a cessation of hostilities towards the Kaqchikel. The K'iche denied and made ready for battle.

In 1524 conquistador Pedro de Alvarado arrived in Guatemala with 135 horsemen, 120 footsoldiers and 400 Aztec, Tlaxcaltecs and Cholultec allies.[12][13] They were quickly promised military assistance by the Kaqchikels. The K'iche knew all about the movements of the Spanish forces through their network of spies. When the army arrived at the K'iche' town of Xelajú Noj (Quetzaltenango) the K'iche' steward of the town sent word to Q'umarkaj. The K'iche' chose Tecún Umán, a lord from Totonicapán, as their commander against the Spanish, and he was ritually prepared for the battle. He and his 8,400 warriors met the Spanish/Aztec/Kaqchikel army outside of Pinal south of Quetzalteango and were defeated. After several more defeats the K'iche' offered the Spanish vassalage and invited them to Q'umarkaj. By way of deceit Alvarado then seized the lords of Q'umarkaj and burned them alive. He instated two lower K'iche leaders as his puppet rulers and continued to subdue the other K'iche' communities in the area. Q'umarkaj was razed and levelled to hinder the K'iche' in reestablishing themselves at the well-fortified site, and the community relocated to the nearby town of Santa Cruz del Quiché.

Social organization

In the Late Postclassic, the greater Q'umarkaj area is estimated to have had a population of around 15,000.[14] The inhabitants of Q'umarkaj were divided socially between the nobility and their vassals.[15] The nobles were known as the ajaw, while the vassals were known as the al k'ajol.[16] The nobility were the patrilineal descendants of the founding warlords who appear to have entered as conquerors from the Gulf coast around AD 1200 and who eventually lost their original language and adopted that of their subjects.[15][17] The nobles were regarded as sacred and bore royal imagery.[15] Their vassals served as foot-soldiers and were subject to the laws laid out by the nobility, although they could receive military titles as a result of their battlefield prowess.[15] The social divisions were deep seated and were equivalent to strictly observed castes.[15] The merchants were a privileged class, although they had to make tributary payments to the nobility.[15] In addition to these classes, the population included rural labourers and artisans.[15] Slaves were also held and included both sentenced criminals and prisoners of war.[15]

There were twenty-four important lineages, or nimja,[16] in Q'umarkaj, closely linked to the palaces in which the nobility attended to their duties;[18] Nimja means "big house" in K'iche', after the palace complexes that the lineages occupied.[19] Their duties included marriage negotiations and associated feasting and ceremonial lecturing.[18] These lineages were strongly patrilineal and were grouped into four larger, more powerful nimja[19] that chose the rulers of the city.[16] At the time of the Conquest, the four ruling nimja were the Kaweq, the Nijaib, the Saqik and the Ajaw K'iche'.[16] The Kaweq and the Nijaib included nine principal lineages each, the Ajaw K'iche' included four and the Saqik had two.[19] As well as choosing the king and king elect, the ruling Kaweq dynasty also had a lineage that produced the powerful priests of Q'uq'umatz, who may have served as stewards of the city.[20]

See also


  1. Carmack 1981:49
  2. Carmack 1981:69.
  3. Carmack 2001a, p.158.
  4. Carmack 2001a, pp.158-159.
  5. Carmack 2001a, pp.160-161.
  6. 1 2 3 Carmack 2001a, p.161.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Carmack 2001a, p.162.
  8. 1 2 Carmack 2001a, p.163.
  9. 1 2 Carmack 2001a, p.164.
  10. 1 2 Carmack 2001a, p.165.
  11. Carmack 2001a, p.166.
  12. Carmack, 1981:144.
  13. Bancroft, 1883:625-6.
  14. Fox 1989, p.673.n2.
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Coe 1999, p.189.
  16. 1 2 3 4 Sharer & Traxler 2006, p.717.
  17. Sharer 2000, p.490.
  18. 1 2 Coe 1999, p.190.
  19. 1 2 3 Carmack & Weeks 1981, p.329.
  20. Carmack 2001a, p.367.

References and bibliography

Akkeren, Ruud van (2003). "Authors of the Popol Vuh". Ancient Mesoamerica. 14 (02): 237256. doi:10.1017/S0956536103142010. ISSN 0956-5361. 
Bancroft, Hubert H. (1883). History of Central America. San Francisco: Bancroft & Co. 
Carmack, Robert M. (1981). The Quiché Mayas of Utatlán. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1546-7. 
Carmack, Robert M. (1973). Quichéan Civilization:The Ethnohistoric, Ethnographic and Archaeological sources. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-01963-6. 
Carmack, Robert M.; John M. Weeks (April 1981). "The Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Utatlan: A Conjunctive Approach". American Antiquity. Society for American Archaeology. 46 (2): 323–341. doi:10.2307/280211. JSTOR 280211. 
Carmack, Robert M. (2001a). Kik'ulmatajem le K'iche'aab': Evolución del Reino K'iche' (in Spanish). Guatemala: Iximulew. ISBN 99922-56-22-2. OCLC 253481949. 
Carmack, Robert M. (2001b). Kik'aslemaal le K'iche'aab': Historia Social de los K'iche's (in Spanish). Guatemala: Iximulew. ISBN 99922-56-19-2. OCLC 47220876. 
Carmack, Robert M. & James L. Mondloch (1983). Título de Totonicapán: texto, traducción y comentario. Mexico DF: UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Filologicas, Centro de Estudios Mayas. ISBN 968-837-376-1. 
Coe, Michael D. (1999). The Maya. Ancient peoples and places series (6th edition, fully revised and expanded ed.). London and New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-28066-5. OCLC 59432778. 
Christenson, Allen J. (1997). "Prehistory of the K'ichean People". Texas Notes on Precolumbian Art, Writing, and Culture. 75. Retrieved 2009-01-05. 
Edmonson, Munro S., ed. (1971). The Book of Counsel: The Popol-Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala. Publ. no. 35. New Orleans: Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University. OCLC 658606. 
Fox, John W. (September 1989). "On the Rise and Fall of Tuláns and Maya Segmentary States". American Anthropologist, New Series. Oxford/Arlington, Virginia: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association. 91 (3): 656–681. doi:10.1525/aa.1989.91.3.02a00080. 
Fox, John W. (1991). "The Lords of Light Versus the Lords of Dark: The Postclassic Highland Maya Ballgame". In Vernon Scarborough; David R. Wilcox. The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. pp. 213–238. ISBN 0-8165-1360-0. OCLC 51873028. 
Fox, John W. (September 1989). "On the Rise and Fall of Tuláns and Maya Segmentary States". American Anthropologist, New Series. Oxford/Arlington, Virginia: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association. 91 (3): 656–681. doi:10.1525/aa.1989.91.3.02a00080. 
Popol Vuh: the Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings. Translated by Tedlock, Dennis. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1985. ISBN 0-671-45241-X. OCLC 11467786. 
Sharer, Robert J. (2000). "The Maya Highlands and the Adjacent Pacific Coast". In Richard E.W. Adams; Murdo J. Macleod. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Vol. II: Mesoamerica, part 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 449–499. ISBN 0-521-35165-0. OCLC 33359444. 
Sharer, Robert J.; Loa P. Traxler (2006). The Ancient Maya (6th (fully revised) ed.). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4817-9. OCLC 57577446. 
Weeks, John M. (1997). "Las ruinas de Utatlán: 150 años después de la publicación de Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, de John L. Stephens,". Apuntes arqueologicos (in Spanish). 5 (1): 7–26. 

Coordinates: 15°1′24.7″N 91°10′19.16″W / 15.023528°N 91.1719889°W / 15.023528; -91.1719889

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