Tabasco and Chiapas have hosted as rich a procession of cultures as anywhere in Mexico. It was at La Venta in western Tabasco that Mesoamerica’s ‘mother culture, ’ the Olmec, reached its greatest heights of development between about 800 and 400 BC, after first emerging in San Lorenzo, Veracruz. Olmec religion, art, astronomy and architecture deeply influenced all of Mexico’s later civilizations.
Low-lying, jungle-covered eastern Chiapas gave rise to some of the most splendid and powerful city-states of another great civilization, the Maya, during the Classic period (approximately AD 250–900), places such as Palenque, Yaxchilán and Toniná. Dozens of lesser Maya powers – including Bonampak, Comalcalco and Chinkultic – prospered in eastern Chiapas and Tabasco during this time, as Maya culture reached its peak of artistic and intellectual achievement. The ancestors of many of the distinctive indigenous groups of highland Chiapas today appear to have migrated to that region from the lowlands after the Classic Maya collapse around AD 900.
Pre-Hispanic Tabasco was the prosperous nexus of a far-reaching trade network extending round the Yucatán coast to Honduras, up the rivers to the jungles and mountains of Guatemala, and westward to highland central Mexico. And it was near Frontera, Tabasco, in 1519 that Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors fought their first battle against native Mexicans, afterwards founding a settlement called Santa María de la Victoria. In 1641, Santa María was moved inland to escape pirate attacks, and renamed Villahermosa de San Juan Bautista. However, Tabasco remained an impoverished backwater until recent decades; now the development of its mineral riches, particularly petroleum, has brought widespread prosperity.
Central Chiapas was brought under Spanish control by the 1528 expedition of Diego de Mazariegos, and outlying areas were subdued in the 1530s and ’40s, though Spain never gained full control of the Lacandón Jungle. New diseases arrived with the Spaniards, and an epidemic in 1544 killed about half Chiapas’ indigenous population. Chiapas was ineffectively administered from Guatemala for most of the colonial era, with little check on the colonists’ excesses against its indigenous people, though some church figures, particularly Bartolomé de Las Casas (1474–1566), the first bishop of Chiapas, did fight for indigenous rights.
In 1822, a newly independent Mexico unsuccessfully attempted to annex Spain’s former Central American provinces (including Chiapas), but in 1824 Chiapas opted (by a referendum) to join Mexico, rather than the United Provinces of Central America. From then on, a succession of governors appointed by Mexico City, along with local landowners, maintained an almost feudal control over Chiapas. Periodic uprisings bore witness to bad government, but the world took little notice until January 1, 1994, when Zapatista rebels suddenly and briefly occupied San Cristóbal de Las Casas and nearby towns by military force. The rebel movement, with a firm and committed support base among disenchanted indigenous settlers in eastern Chiapas, quickly retreated to remote jungle bases to campaign for democratic change and indigenous rights. The Zapatistas have failed to win any significant concessions at the national level, although increased government funding steered toward Chiapas did result in noticeable improvements in the state’s infrastructure, development of tourist facilities and a growing urban middle class.