Who Were the Guanches of the Canary Islands?
Many legends surround the native people of the Canary Islands. Some believed the Guanches (as they were known) were descendants from the mythical island-nation of Atlantis. Others speculated they came from -- or formed -- other advanced civilizations such as the ancient Egyptians or Mayans of Central America.
Unfortunately, history had another fate for the Guanches. They became the first casualty of the era best known as the Age of Discovery. During the 15th and 16th century, Spain and Portugal began colonizing the Americas and Africa. The island and its people stood in the way.
Today, Guanches are considered a lost culture. Spanish colonization and the slave trade had all but wiped out these natives of the island chain. If they didn’t die fighting against the invaders, they were decimated by diseases introduced by the European conquerors. And, of those that survived, they became assimilated culturally and genetically through interbreeding with the Spanish rulers or Sub-Saharan African slaves.
It’s a sad demise for a culture that not only first colonized the archipelagos off the coast of Northwest Africa, but had established trade with the Roman Empire. Also, it’s an unfortunate loss considering that there was evidence that a rich civilization once existed there.
Origin of the Guanches
Evidence suggests the Guanches arrived in the Canary Islands between 1000 B.C. and 800 B.C. DNA test conducted on current inhabitants and mummified remains from ancient burial grounds indicate that these people were closely related to the Moroccan Berbers of North Africa.
It was also reported that some of the mummified remains found on the island had red or blond hair (However, it should be noted that red hair may have been caused by conditions due to burial or mummification).
The first reports of their existences came from the Roman author and military officer, Pliny the Elder. He wrote an account based on writings from Juba II, king of Mauretania, which detailed an expedition to the island in 50 BC. Incidentally, the ruins of great buildings – not the people – were observed.
Still, somewhere in its early history, the Mauritanian kingdom – a client kingdom of the Romans after the fall of Carthage – opened trade with Guanches
From Discovery to Trade Partners
What happened to its occupants? This may have been due to the island where the Mauritanian expedition landed. The Canary Islands consist of seven islands: Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro, and Fuerteventura. Tenerife is one of the largest islands and had several tribes on it.
The reports from the Mauritanians expedition didn’t elaborate on the particular island’s description or location. It’s possible that the explorers gave an incomplete account or purposely didn’t report any contact with the people they met.
Still, somewhere in its early history, the Mauritanian kingdom – a client kingdom of the Romans after the fall of Carthage – opened trade with Guanches. Eventually this agreement would later lead to direct trade with the Romans.
Evidence of this came in 1997. Discoveries at archeological sites on the island of Lanzarote revealed that one of the aboriginal people of the Canary Islands once traded with the Romans.
In addition, literary evidence from Greek Historian Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) gave some hints that contact and trade had been established with these people.
Losing Contact with the Rest of the World
Yet, after the fall of Rome, the Guanches lost their last contact with outside world. They lived on the island of Tenerife in relative isolation. With the exception of several possible contacts with Genoan and Castilian sailors as well as traders in the 8th century, they were forgotten by the outside world. As a result, the Guanches’ technology and society became very primitive, resembling Neolithic culture.
Several centuries past before the Guanches were rediscovered. In 1150 AD, the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi wrote the first official account of the population of the Canary Islands. His account were recorded in the book called Nuzhatul. It was initially written for King Roger II of Sicily, and contained brief descriptions of accounts made by sailors and traders of the time.
The geographer detailed the journey of the Mugharrarin, a family of Andalusian sailors from present-day Portugal. He wrote that these seafarers visited the island chain and came across “a village whose inhabitants were often fair hair with long and flaxen hair and the women of a rare beauty.”
The Invasion and Resistance
Contact with the islanders was sporadic, at best. But that changed by the early 15th century. In 1402, the Spaniards from the Castilian region landed. And this time, they came with no intention of setting up trade. An expedition to the island by Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de la Salle resulted in the invasion and capitulation of the island of Lanzarote.
The people on this island easily gave in to Castilian domination when their crops failed and were near starvation. However, this didn’t mean that total domination of the Canary Islands would come swiftly and easily.
Inhabitants of the remaining islands fought back. Although each island would eventually fall to the Spanish, it took nearly 100 years for it to happen. The last holdout, the Guanches of Tenerife, stubbornly held on until 1496. In the process, they managed to win a battle against the invaders in 1494 at the First Battle of Acentejo.
The battle was known as La Matanzas or “The Slaughter” in which the Guanches, armed with stones and spears, ambushed the Castilians in a valley. One in five Castilians perished.
One of the survivors, Alfonzo Fernandez de Lugo, the expedition leader, returned to the island with an alliance of the island’s other tribal kings and defeated the Guanches in the Battle of Aguere, and later the Second Battle of Acentejo.
When the Guanches lost their struggle, they ended up losing much of their culture. The brutal assimilation between them and the Spaniards saw the end of their polytheistic religion. Knowledge on it evaporated over the years. Thus, not much, except for a few artifacts, remain.
Nearly anything unique about them vanished, including their identity. To date, Spain still claims the islands as its territory, meaning that the descendants of these indigenous people are Spanish citizens.
Another important facet of their culture, their language,faded away. By the 19th century the language was generally replaced by Spanish. The traces of this dead language exist on a few clay tablets and in the name of various villages on the islands.
Evidence of their Existence
Not all was lost. There are minute reminders that the Guanches had a thriving culture. Ironically, some of it exists in their burial sites. The Guanches preserved the dead through a successful form of mummification. The styles and methods varied; they were either wrapped in goatskins or sheepskin. In other cases, resinous substance enveloped them. In part, the burial sites existed in nearly inaccessible caves with ideal conditions to help preserve the Guanches mummies.
In addition, representations of Guanches’ political system survived. Artifacts indicate that some island tribes had autocratic systems. Others had democratic forms of government. On Tenerife, however, the king owned all the land and leased it out to the people in a feudalistic system.
DNA helped to establish some evidence of their origins. However, other researchers are making claims that the Guanches may have had a lineage that went as far back as the Pyramid builders of the Egypt and the Americas.
Still, within the genetic makeup of the people, traces of the Guanches live on.
One website claimed that pyramid-like structures were found on the island. bibliotecapleyades.net , purported to show an actual photo of an island pyramid.
The site compared it to a Mayan pyramid. Another claim from the site stated that the famous 20th century Norwegian explorer, Thor Heyerdahl had rediscovered the pyramid.
Still, information about the pyramids on the island are scant and come from questionable sites. Even the claim mentioned in bibliotecapleyades.net lack validity on this matter.
Canary Island, Today
It’s been more than 500 years since the Guanches lost its reign on the Canary Islands. These days, the islands’ population (over 2 million) is diverse. Still, within the genetic makeup of the people, traces of the Guanches live on. A small percentage can directly trace their lineage to these indigenous people.
As more interest in these people’s past is explored, it may be possible that the Guanches will be pulled from the obscurity of history and reveal the many secrets of their past.
- Maca-Meyer, Arney, Carlos Rando :“Ancient DNA analysis and the Origin of the Guanches,” European Journal of Human Genetics; published online Sept. 24, 2003 : www.nature.com.
- Slayman, Andrew: “Roman Trade with the Canary Island”; Archeological Institute of America; May/June 1997: www.archaelogy.org
- “What Became of the Guanches?” www.ctspanish.com : Retrieved 2009
- “The Guanches of the Canary Islands” ; www.bibliotecapleyades.net
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© 2018 Dean Traylor