The Tolupan Today


Herb Kuehne speaks with a woman at the medical clinic.The Tolupan are a small group of families who live in a rugged area of central Honduras, known as the Montaña de la Flor.  Access to the Tolupan requires four hours of rough driving from a paved highway over gravel roads that eventually end in mud-rutted roads and steep walking trails.


The traditional Tolupan live at the ends of those roads as well as higher up in hamlets at various levels throughout the ridges and valleys that make up the Montaña de la Flor.  Written descriptions of the Tolupan are few.  Anne Chapman has probably written the most about the people, based on fieldwork that she did in the late 1950’s and thereafter.  The people and the culture she wrote about continue to change, as they interact with the predominant Ladino culture of Honduras. Still, some Tolupan exhibit the unique physical features seen in the photos of Chapman’s book, Masters of Animals (1992; original 1978)).  And some cultural features such as subsistence methods, clothing, social structures, etc. also prevail, although most have greatly changed in adaptation to the surrounding “modern” ways of living.


The following sketchy observations are offered in order to stimulate interest in study of the Tolupan.   The occasion during which these observations were made was a medical mission in the third week of January, 2009.  Details about that mission and about how the data was collected are described at the end of this text.


A sketch of contemporary Tolupan life


The exact number of Tolupan and their households is not known.  There seem to be many hamlets of 10-40 houses scattered about in the Montaña de la Flor area.  Chapman called them “clusters” (1978: 42) and explained them as derivatives of the introduction of coffee production in the 1930’s.  Current hamlets include at least the following (with population estimates from informants): Lavanderos (550), Lima (120); San Juan (300); Ceiba (250), La Savana, El Puerto, Montenegro, Monterrey (70), Guauma (80), La Rosa, La Laguna.  One informant suggested that there were “pure Tolupan” living in Lima, San Juan, Ceiba, Monterrey, and Guauma, but circumstances did not allow for clarification of what “pure Tolupan” meant.  A brief question about why many who came to a clinic did not appear to show “pure Tolupan” physical features received the reply that people came from many different hamlets widely scattered in the area.


Actually, many people who came to the clinics exhibited greatly different genetic backgrounds than that of the Tolupan who appear in Chapman’s book.  Ladinozation from colonial times has obviously continued.  In fact a few individuals might not be noticed as particularly different were they walking in Caucasian neighborhoods in parts of the USA.


Maize, beans, squash, tomatoes, plantains, and potatoes were clearly planted in fields around the area.  Cleared areas on many steep slopes prompted a question of how the people manage to plant there.  Horses and mules were frequently used as means of transportation, but it is doubtful that they or any oxen could have been used to pull plows on the steep slopes.  (No oxen were seen on roads in the Montaña area, but they were seen pulling carts along roads down in the valleys farther away).   An informant said that people used digging sticks for the planting of the crops on the steep slopes, but time did not allow for more detail.  Chapman (40) describes digging sticks and other farming techniques used during her observations, so obviously, some of the traditional techniques are still being practiced.  


As Chapman noted in her work, coffee had come to be a major cash crop for the families in the Montaña area.  During our short stay, many large sacks of coffee were brought down the mountains on horseback, and on one occasion an individual in the distance was seen to be grinding coffee with a hand-cranked mechanical grinder fixed onto a table outside his house.


All land in the area seems to be privately owned.  Fences abound, even on steep slopes at higher elevations, and many fences included barbed wire, strung between wooden posts, with tops shaped into roughly hewn points.  Julio, who will be introduced below, indicated to the writer that the lands once were ejido lands of the government.  He indicated that the people negotiated with the government to let the lands become private property, and he seemed to say that the Tolupan did not have to pay the government for privatizing any of those lands.


Traditional clothing patterns described by Chapman were largely absent among the people who came to the medical clinics.   One individual male did visit while wearing a skirt-like outfit, apparently made of cloth, not bark, as Chapman describes some traditional male clothing.  Both he and his family seemed extremely poor, with clothing pieced together from many different sources of cloth.  For the most part, others who came from around the area wore pants, collared shirts, dresses, blue jeans, sweatshirts, and many variations typical of Ladinos throughout Honduras.  Many also wore clothing left by previous mission groups---articles touting American brand names and phrases in English. 


The original social structure of the Tolupan (as described by Chapman) evolved into a moiety system from the two families whom she described as the first families to move into the area.  That family structure and its evolution make the Tolupan a particularly interesting group for further study .  Some individuals during the mission claimed that the Tolupan are very interbred, and that attempts to establish genealogical relationships would be difficult.  Ultimately all names, they claimed would relate back to the Soto’s or the Martinez’, the surnames chosen by the refugees who were the founding families of the Tolupan. 


During our work there, two elders seemed to draw the highest respect.  A certain Tomas lived in a house at the end of the road (and the beginning of trails into the higher elevations) where we established our base clinic.  He represents one of the two major family groups of the Tolupan—the Martinez’.  He and his two sons, Julio and Jose, were the key individuals who hosted our medical team in small cement block buildings across the road from his house.  The hamlet was called Ceiba, and son, Jose, seemed to be the chief representative of the hamlet.  Jose stayed close during the medical mission and on occasion helped individual local folk get special attention. He also gave a farewell speech of gratitude to the medical team.


Son, Julio, was also extremely helpful in hosting our mission.  He and his family lived in Monterrey hamlet, at an altitude of approximately 5000’. (Ceiba hamlet was located at an elevation of 3700’.)   Julio, however, was not the head of Monterrey hamlet.  Another individual who lived there was its chief representative.  It was he who arranged the clinic there and also (twice) asked the leader of the medical team for detail about when a planned water project would be implemented.  (The same sponsors of the medical mission have been building water systems for other hamlets in area.)  The hamlet leader showed a letter from Julio indicating that the project would be delayed, but as an advocate for his hamlet, he pressed for more explanations.


Tomas’ son, Julio, is the heir apparent to replace Tomas as chief of all the Tolupan households who identify with the Martinez side of the original founding group.  Julio is a major collaborator with the medical mission team’s organization.  He drives the Toyota pickup that the mission keeps in the area.  He uses a cell phone, when coverage is possible.  And he seems to be the major player who organizes resources for the mission as well as for other activities for his relatives in the Montaña.  He seems to hold a rank above that of his brother, Jose, as well as above that of the chief of Monterrey, where, nonetheless, Julio himself actually lives.


The respected elder of the families and hamlets who identify with the other original family (the Soto’s) was Cipriano, who is reputed to be 108 years old.  (He looks younger.) Cipriano visited during a clinic at the San Juan hamlet, but we did not have occasion for much contact.  Given his reputed age, he could be the Cipriano Soto who took over leadership of one of the moieties when his father, a man named “Doroteo” died sometime after 1954.  (Chapman: 50-51; 54) 


Chapman’s description of Tolupan marital patterns suggest that monogamy was the norm, with a variation of patrilocality as the typical household residential pattern.  Occasional comments heard during the medical mission suggested that some of the households in the Montaña area included families in which a male was living with several women.  It was not feasible to try to confirm any of those comments, but it seemed that men often had children from more than one woman.  In a brief conversation, a sister of one of the Tolupan leaders did indicate that her brother had at least thirty children; and she named--while pointing to individual fingers--nine different women from whom those children came.  Opportunity did not allow confirmation.  It would have been interesting, given the likely inbreeding among the Tolupan, to learn whether actual marital practice allowed polygamy, serial marriage, concubinage, or simply was a response to frequent female death from childbirth and illness. 


Finally, during the 2008 medical mission from which this information derives, health issues that were seen resembled many that Chapman described (1992: 53).  People generally complained of colds, aches and pains, diarrhea, and arthritis.  Some healed-over wounds (one from a snake bite) were described.  Several cases of serious asthma were seen and treated.  One case of chicken pox appeared.  Some tuberculosis and pneumonia were suspected.  A local doctor thought that one elderly individual exhibited a case of  acute skin cancer, but the medical mission doctors couldn’t rule out the possibility that the wound was the result of a serious accident.  One five year old girl had a colostomy that mission doctors thought could be repaired. One young boy exhibited a rare skin disease called, “ichthyosis.”  And on one occasion a family of deaf mutes came to a clinic.  Chapman mentions that the Tolupan whom she had studied exhibited a higher than expected ratio of deaf mutes, and she attributed the incidence to high rates of inbreeding.


Source of these observations


This information is offered in an attempt to stimulate future studies of the Tolupan and of the Montaña region in which they live.  Little about the group seems to have been published in English.  The current authoritative work is that of Anne Chapman in her book Les enfants de la mort:universe mythique des indiens tolupan (jicaque) du Honduras (1978).  She revised that book and published it in English under the title, Masters of Animals (1992—published by OFA of Amsterdam and available through Gordon and Breach Science Publishes, S.A.)   Chapman began her studies of the Tolupan in 1955-56 and has continued to visit them periodically since doing major research in 1957-58 and again in 1971.


The information posted here was derived during a Gehlen Catholic High School medical mission to Honduras that was conducted January 14-22, 2009.  Gehlen High School Mission trips to Honduras began in 2001 as ways to involve students in serious problems outside the USA.  For various reasons, among which were the ravages of Hurricane Mitch in 1999, the group focused on Honduras.  As of this writing, the Gehlen High School Mission has mobilized 26 different teams of individuals for various projects in, and around, the Montañaa de la Flor region.  In response to criticisms that “aid” trips often are designed to benefit the doers rather than the receivers, Gehlen chose to return over and over to the same region, in order to generate lasting impact.  For details on the cumulative effort, see the current website at   


The information posted here comes from observations during less-than-systematic conversations with locals during relaxed periods before, after, and sometimes during clinic work.  This was the author’s first time on such a medical mission (“brigade” is the Honduran term).  His Spanish is limited, learned primarily during anthropological field work in Mexico 35 years ago and maintained in various ways since then.  But it was sufficient for service as a translator and for casual conversations with Hondurans who spoke no English.


The author chatted with individuals, some of whom were inhabitants of the area, and others of whom were Hondurans from outside the area serving as mission guides, chauffeurs, and translators.   On one occasion the author had opportunity to talk continuously for 15-20 minutes with Julio, the local leader mentioned in the text, as Julio accompanied the author during a climb up to Julio’s Monterrey hamlet, where the group was to conduct a clinic.  On other occasions, this writer had opportunity to talk with local people, when one or other was standing around during a clinic.  None of those conversations were conducted for systematic collection of ethnographic data.  But they, as well as notes by the author as a participant observer, provide this posted information.  As always, errors are his and individuals with more accurate information should correct the errors.



Herb Kuehne, Ph.D.


February 1, 2009