Many Salvadorans think that Pipil is the main indigenous root of the Salvadoran people. Pipiles may have been the largest group at the time of the Spanish conquest and might be the only group that maintained an explicitly indigenous identity beyond the matanza of the 1930s, but El Salvador has many different groups of indigenous within its history. In fact, the Pipiles did not even arrive on the scene from central Mexico until about 850 A.D.
Prior to the Pipiles, the primary people of El Salvador were the Chorti, the Cuscatlan, the Ulua, and the Lenca, with a small group of Masahuat. The Chorti extended in much of modern-day Ahuachapan and Santa Ana, as well as the western half of Chalatenango - especially from La Palma north. Of course they were also in eastern Guatemala. The Lenca were in much of eastern El Salvador, with villages up against the Ulua, with whom they had good relations. The Cuscatlan were the most influential culture for much of pre-history and should be considered Maya. Great sailors, they lived along the Lempa River and much of Usulutan, San Vicente, La Paz, San Salvador, Cuscatlan, and Cabanas. They probably had centers at Tehuacan and Cojutepeque. They were related to the Zapoteca and very closely to the Ulua. The Ulua lived in the eastern half of Chalatenango, northern Cabanas and Cuscatlan, northern Morazan, and parts of San Miguel. Also, throughout much of Honduras. The Masahuat are best described as renegade Kiche. Most of them became the Mam in Guatemala but a few remained in Nueva Concepcion and southern Chalatenango.The Pipil arrived from central Mexico in about 850 A.D., driven out by the dominant and violent Toltec. The Pipiles are Nahuat-speaking people and some settled in coastal Guatemala and Nicaragua, as well as El Salvador. Some also settled in Honduras. The name Pipil means "companions of the waterways," which indicate that most were Purepecha (related to the Cuscatlan and the Lenca). Historically the Purepecha controlled the Balsas and Lerma Rivers. They were the arch-enemy of the Toltec. Some of the Pipil might also have been renegade Kiche from Mexico (Masawa), similar to the Masahuat. These communities are identified by Masahuat in the name (except for the one in Nueva Concepcion). In about 860 A.D. the Toltec (Totonac, Otomi, Cakchiquel) arrived to El Salvador at Cihuatan. They killed many of the Pipil (Purepecha) leaders but the Cuscatlan helped to conceal the Pipil by also becoming Pipil so that the Toltec could not distinguish. Many of the Chorti left then and the Pocomam entered in the far west, allies of the Toltec. The Otomi flipped, rejecting their place in the Toltec and becoming part of the opposition. At that time they became the Nonualco, living from Panchimalco to the villages named Nonualco. Eventually the Toltec were defeated. The Totonac were allowed to stay - they moved to the Izalco area. At the time of the Spanish they were called Pipil but technically they weren't. The Cakchiquel, the most repressive of the Toltec, were forced to leave en masse becoming the Nicarao in Nicaragua. Their repressive behavior there caused a group of Matagalpa (Miskito) to flee, migrating to Morazan becoming the Cacaopera, not long before the arrival of the Spanish, next to the Ulua, their lineage-mates.
Edited April 7, 2014, January 27, 2016, and August 4, 2016