Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

A part from a few pottery shards and bone fish hooks, there is not much evidence left that Paya Indians lived on Roatan and the other Bay Islands. Yet they lived and flourished here and on the eastern mainland of Honduras for over 3,000 years before contact was first made with the Spanish in 1502. After that, the lives and lifestyle of the Paya would change dramatically, leading to the end of their presence on the islands by the mid 1640s.

The Paya spoke a Macro Chibchen dialect, which was used throughout Central America and as far south as present day Colombia and Venezuela. Into the Paya language hundreds of Nahuatl words from Mexico brought there by Toltec Indians were incorporated.

Many Paya words are still in everyday use in Honduras. The word “champa,” for example, meaning house or hut; the word “Zipote” and “Chiwina,” both meaning young child. “Zacate” meaning grass. The Paya words for mosquito and sandfly are “Zancudo” and “Jejene.” Our word in English, hammock comes from the Nahuatl word “hamaca” as is their word for canoe “cayuga,” and hurricane is derived from “huracan.”

My favorite Paya word still in use today is “Macanazo,” meaning a good beating, which originates from the Toltec word for war club: “Macana.” Other Nahuatl words still in use, are “tomate,” “avocate” and “potato.”

The Paya lived in settlements of 100-500 people, led by a cacique or chief, assisted by a shaman for spiritual consultation. They tended to avoid living close to the ocean as their dwellings consisted of platforms built on poles, with a thatched roof or “manaca” and woven walls. The structures were too flimsy to withstand serious storms.

Paya words for mosquito and sandfly are ‘Zancudo’ and ‘Jejene’

They lived a completely self sufficient lifestyle, using food and materials from their natural habitat. Food was in abundance: beans and corn were cultivated as staples and they hunted wild pigs, “quequeo” a large rodent similar to a giant guinea pig (tepesquintle), deer, armadillos, manatees, coatamundis, raccoons or “mapache,” rabbits and wild turkeys. Fish, lobster, turtles and shrimp comprised other food sourced from the sea.

The Ceiba or Kapok tree was and still is sacred to the Paya. It provided a valuable oil for medicines and a workable, lightweight wood for their dug-out canoes. The tough, fluffy Ceiba tree fiber from the tree’s seed pods was used to stuff Paya pillows and mattresses. While it was very durable it was also unfortunately highly flammable.

The Paya also used the Kapok fiber to pad their tunics when hunting and fighting, making it an early form of Kevlar armor. Upon arrival, the Spanish quickly found their heavy metal armor unsuited for the climate and adopted kapok stuffed tunics to replace it.

Roatan and the Bay Islands were an important stopover point for traders bartering goods up and down the Caribbean coast from Mexico to Costa Rica. The Paya traded in gold, silver, ceramics, conch shells, exotic bird plumes and cocoa – a highly profitable plant whose seeds were used as currency. Until 1680s the Spanish paid their Paya workers in cocoa seeds.

The Paya were also involved in establishing trading routes of over 800 miles stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Apart from the threat of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes and inter- tribal fighting the Paya lived a relatively peaceful and trouble free existence. They remained in tune with their environment. This all changed drastically with the arrival of the colonizing Spanish, who came to Honduras in 1524.

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