The founding lineages of the Maya, Olmec/Lenca, and Zapotecs began their shared jaguar culture on Isla Tigre, Honduras, and then moved to four islands in the area of the current country of El Salvador. Starting in about 8200 BCE the Olmec/Lenca ancestors lived on islands in Lago Olomeka, the Zapotec ancestors lived on islands near the mouth of the Lempa River, the Quiche ancestors lived on an island in Lago Coatepeque, and the Ch'orti' ancestors lived on an island in Lago Guija, with nearly half of the lake in the current country of Guatemala.
Each lineage needed to live apart because each island was too small to accommodate the entirety of the four lineages. They had to live on islands because their enemies, based at the Corinto cave, were afraid of water. So the four lineages were safe on islands. But they missed each other. The Ch'orti' and Olmec ancestors, for example, lived 180 kilometers from each other, as a crow flies. Only the Ch'orti's and Quiches were close enough to visit with frequency - 42 kilometers apart. A quick run.
The ancestors needed a place to meet. What happened during the meetings? I'm sure they shared lots of information about plants and animals, about new things cultivated, about tools and technology, about encounters with the Xibalbhans, about travels by land or sea. And perhaps it was a place where the youth came together and new young couples were made. Perhaps sometimes one group hosted the other three. But they wanted a place to meet where each one's path was about the same as the others'. They found that in current-day eastern Chalatenango.
They found a spot to meet on the Lempa River (click to enlarge the map) halfway between the Ch'orti's at one of the sources of the river and the Zapotecs at the mouth of the river, at a location near present-day Nombre de Jesus or San Antonio de la Cruz. They paddled or poled up or down the river. The Quiches walked north-northwest until they reached the Lempa, where they embarked in canoes, while the Olmec/Lenca ancestors walk northeast until they reach the Lempa or went to the ocean and went by boat to the Lempa and then up the Lempa. They had the longest journey.
This meeting place they called Ahrkahtahu: (in Ch'orti')
Ahr - time of, occasion
Kah - start, beginning
Tahu - meeting, coming together
The Zapotecs, as their language changed from the Ch'orti', began to call it Ahrkahtao or, as it is spelled today, Arcatao. Arcatao originally was located near where the Lempa River and the Sumpul River join. This would have been a more logical meeting spot than present-day Arcatao, located 12 kilometers north of the Lempa. And this agrees with the oral history of Arcatao which says that it used to be located at Eramón (or Iramón), a mountain near the confluence of the Sumpul and Lempa rivers. Either the meeting place was near the rivers at the base of Iramón or up on top of the mountain, in order to find a cooler place to meet.
Let's look at the Ch'orti' origin of Iramón:
Wihrih - fly
Mo' - parrot
Muahn - hawk
As was true with the word Cuxcatlan, the Zapotecs dropped the beginning 'w' sound in wihrih. Perhaps both mo' and muahn derive from an earlier mon syllable which simply meant a large bird. Both parrots and hawks might like to fly around the cliffs of Iramón but today a hawk would be a more likely sight. Iramón likely means "flying hawks" or perhaps parrots.
The oral history of Arcatao goes on to say that a priest came to Iramón and eventually convinced the people there to move down to the valley where Arcatao is now located. The people wouldn't move but soon found that the statue of their patron saint, St. Bartholomew, was missing. They searched and finally found him at the site of the present-day Arcatao. The people moved the saint statue back to their village but the next morning it was gone again. They found it at Arcatao. This repeated itself a few more times until finally the people moved to Arcatao, where they have lived since.
This story most likely dates to pre-Hispanic times and would involve either a Lenca or Ch'orti' priest, stealthily moving a statue of Ahwilix, Hacawitz, or Tohil in an effort to move the village to be the caretaker of the sacred hills surrounding Arcatao, one of the first sites where the ancestors found the sacred teosinte grass from which corn came from. This is known given the place name Teosinte near Arcatao.
When the Spanish heard the indigenous story of the statue being moved they must have thought of the statue of St. Bartholomew who is moved through the streets of Lipari, Italy, on the August 24 feast day. The legend goes that the statue got heavier and had to be dropped, thus saving the walls of the town from collapsing.
Tao came to mean "great" or "sacred" in Zapotec at the time of the arrival of the Spanish. Pitao is a prefix often placed before the names of their deities and Pitao is also called the "uncreated" and the "father of the gods". Piye-tao is one of the names of the Creator God of the Zapotec.
It is not a huge change from "meeting of the great ones" to simply "the great ones." This change probably happened in the post Classic era. During the pre-Classic and Classic times at Monte Alban, tao likely meant something like: "meeting place of the great ones who each traveled down the path to get there." This may have been the meaning shared with the world.
After several days of coming together the four lineages left Arcatao and canoed and/or walked back to their four islands. To this day Arcatao is a great place to meet, a place to come together to plan the new world.