K'iche' (pronounced [kʼi ˈtʃeʔ]; previous Spanish spelling: Quiché)[2] are indigenous peoples of the Americas and are one of the Maya peoples. The K'iche' language is a Mesoamerican language in the Mayan language family. The highland K'iche' states in the pre-Columbian era are associated with the ancient Maya civilization, and reached the peak of their power and influence during the Postclassic period. The meaning of the word K'iche' is "many trees." The Nahuatl translation, Cuauhtēmallān "Place of the Many Trees (People)", is the origin of the word Guatemala. Quiché Department is also named for them. Rigoberta Menchú, an activist for indigenous rights who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992, is perhaps the best-known K'iche'.


Market day in the K'iche' town of Chichicastenango

According to the 2011 census, K'iche' people constituted 11% of the Guatemalan population, accounting for 1,610,013 people out of a total of 14,636,487.[1] The large majority of K'iche' people live in the highlands of Guatemala, notably in the departments of El Quiché, which is 65.1% K'iche' and has a total K'iche' population of 622,163;[1] Totonicapán, which is 95.9% K'iche' and has a total K'iche' population of 453,237;[1] Quetzaltenango, which is 25.9% K'iche' and has a total K'iche' population of 205,228; and[1] Sololá, which is 35.3% K'iche' and has a total K'iche' population of 151,992.[1]

El Quiché forms the heartland of the K'iche' people. In pre-Columbian times, the K'iche' settlements and influence reached beyond the highlands, including the valley of Antigua and coastal areas in Escuintla.

Most K'iche' speak their native language and have at least a working knowledge of Spanish, with the exception of some remote and isolated rural communities. Maya languages closely related to K'iche' are Uspantek, Sakapultek, Kaqchikel and Tzutujil.


The history of the K'iche' people can be divided into two main historical periods, pre-conquest and post-conquest. Conquest occurred in 1524 with the arrive of the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado.[3]

Location of the K'iche population in Guatemala


In pre-Conquest times, the K'iche' Kingdom of Q'umarkaj was one of the most powerful states in the region. K’iche' was an independent state that existed after the decline of the Maya Civilization with the Classic collapse (c.300 - c.950 AD).[4] K'iche' lay in a highland mountain valley of Guatemala, and during this time they were also found in parts of El Salvador. The major city of the K'iche' in the western highlands of Guatemala was Utatlan. It was the political, ceremonial and social center of the K'iche' people. Though many of the Spanish conquistadors records do not depict it as a great and powerful place, it was very much so to the native K'iche' who lived there. The city covered an estimated area of 3.25 km2 across the Resguardo plateau. There is also evidence for a large degree of cultural exchange between the K'iche' and the people of Central Mexico, and Nahuatl has influenced the K'iche' language greatly.[5]


The K'iche' were conquered by the conquistador Pedro de Alvardo in 1524. Their last military commander, Tecun Uman, led the K'iche' armies against the combined forces of Pedro de Alvarado and Pedro's allies, the Kaqchikel. The battle took place in the valley of Xelajú (Quetzaltenango) where the K'iche' armies were defeated and close to 10,000 K'iche' died, including Tecún Umán. Tecún has since lived on as a legendary figure in the K'iche' oral tradition. After the battle, the K'iche' surrendered and invited Alvarado to their capital, Q'umarkaj. However, Alvarado suspected an ambush and had the city burned. The ruins of the city can still be seen, just a short distance from Santa Cruz del Quiché.[6]

One of the main missions of the Spanish clergy during the conquest was to convert the Mesoamerican people to Christianity. Though they never fully converted the people, they did leave an impact on their language. The K’iche’ people were one of the first groups studied by a Catholic religious order known as the Dominicans and they were used to establish Theologia Indorum, a Christian theology text written in the K’iche’ native language.[7] The text was meant to be a tool for transitioning the K’iche’ and other Mesoamerican groups to Christianity.[8] To accomplish this, the Dominicans attempted to change the meaning of some native words to better reflect their ideals. They also utilized similar word, sentence, and rhythmic structure to the Popol Vuh.[7]

K'iche' Rulers

The original beginnings of the elite K'iche' rulers is still up to debate but it is thought that the warlords traveled to the Guatemalan highlands in AD 1225. They began their migration after the collapse of the Yucatàn Maya center of Chichén Itzá, which is believed to have taken place around AD 1200. The elite warlords followed the Rio Usumacinta drainage, the Rio Negro and Rio Agua Caliente until they crossed into the San Andres Basin where they began early K'iche' settlements. These elite warlords were in small groups that were very mobile and consisted of mostly men. They began to intermingle with the local K'iche' populations soon after their arrival. A chronological list of the rulers can be made by using generation lengths from the first ruler and so on. [9]

K'iche' Rulers
Dates (AD) Name
1225 - 1250 B'alam Kitze
1250 - 1275 K'ok'oja
1275 - 1300 E,Tz'ikim
1300 - 1325 Ajkan
1325 - 1350 K'okaib'
1350 - 1375 K'onache
1375 - 1400 K'otuja
1400 - 1425 Quq'kumatz
1425 - 1475 K'iq'ab'
1475 - 1500 Vahxak' iKaam
1500 - 1524 Oxib Kej


Popol Vuh

One of the most significant surviving Mesoamerican literary documents and primary sources of knowledge about Maya societal traditions, beliefs and mythological accounts is a product of the 16th century K'iche' people. This document, known as the Popol Vuh ("Pop wuj" in proper K'iche – "the book of events") and originally written around the 1550s, contains a compilation of mythological and ethno-historical narratives known to these people at that time, which were drawn from earlier pre-Columbian sources (now lost) and also oral traditional storytelling. This narrative includes a telling of their version of the creation myth, relating how world and humans were created by the gods, the story of the divine brothers, and the history of the K'iche' from their migration into their homeland up to the Spanish conquest.[10]

The Popol Vuh, from its creation to present day, has evolved into an important symbol of indigenous culture for present-day Guatemalans and people of Mayan descent. This sacred text has been used in religious and spiritual ceremonies, university studies, political movements and protests, and historical research into the lives of the Mayans and, more specifically, the K'iche' people. It was declared the official book of Guatemala in 1971. The Popol Vuh has been used by the people of Mayan descent in present-day Guatemala as an argument to defend their land and political rights in order to preserve their indigenous culture. To this day, the Popol Vuh continues to be analyzed and studied to better understand spiritual beliefs and practices of the Maya, and how it has shaped present-day cultures.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "CARACTERIZACIÓN" (PDF). Ine.gob.gt. Retrieved 17 October 2017. 
  2. ^ Baily, John (1850). Central America; Describing Each of the States of Guatemala, Honduras, Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. London: Trelawney Saunders. p. 83. 
  3. ^ Minster, Christopher. "The Maya: Conquest of the K'iche by Pedro de Alvarado". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 27 October 2017. 
  4. ^ famsi. "FAMSI - John Pohl's Mesoamerica - Chronology of Mesoamerica". www.famsi.org. Retrieved 2017-10-06. 
  5. ^ Braswell, Geoffrey (2003), "5", The Postclassic Mesoamerican World, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, pp. 51–56, ISBN 978-1-60781-024-7 
  6. ^ Sharer, Robert J. (2009-05-14). Daily Life in Maya Civilization, 2nd Edition. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9780313351303. 
  7. ^ a b Romero, Sergio (24 August 2015). "Language, Catechisms, and Mesoamerican Lords in Highland Guatemala: Addressing "God" after the Spanish Conquest". Ethnohistory. 62 (3): 623–649. doi:10.1215/00141801-2890273. 
  8. ^ Frauke Sachse, Erstellt. "The Theologia Indorum: A Critical Translation of Friar Domingo de Vico's Theology for and of the Maya — Institut für Archäologie und Kulturanthropologie". www.iae.uni-bonn.de (in German). Uni Bonn. Retrieved 20 October 2017. 
  9. ^ Babcock, Thomas F. (2012). Utatlán : the constituted community of the K'iche' Maya of Q'umarkaj. Boulder: University Press of Colorado. ISBN 9781607321545. 
  10. ^ Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Maya. University of Oklahoma Press. 2003. ISBN 9780806138398. 
  11. ^ Quiroa, Nestor (August 2013). "Missionary Exegesis of the Popol Vuh: Maya-K'iche' Cultural and Religious Continuity in Colonial and Contemporary Highland Guatemala". History of Religions. 53: 66. doi:10.1086/671250. JSTOR 671250. 


Carmack, Robert M. (1973). Quichéan Civilization: The Ethnohistoric, Ethnographic and Archaeological sources. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-01963-6. OCLC 649816. 
Carmack, Robert M. (1981). The Quiché Mayas of Utatlán: The Evolution of a Highland Guatemala Kingdom. Civilization of the American Indian series, no. 155. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-1546-7. OCLC 6555814. 
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. 

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