Guanche – The People of the Canary Islands

Today we travel to a part of Spain that many people know mostly due to its touristic value: the Canary Island. However, this archipelago is the home to a usually forgotten and mysterious people – The Guanche. The are plenty of conspiracy theories as to where the Guanche came from and what was their involvement with the bizarre pyramids around Tenerife. However, recent archaeological and scientifical research are helping us understand the origins of these people and their role in the history of the islands. According to a study published in 2004 in the European Journal of Human Genetics, the Guanche are most likely related to the Berbers settle in the area of Morocco and other parts of northern Africa. This is also backed up by the similarities between Guanche language and Berber dialects from the area of the Atlas mountains. Nevertheless, further DNA analysis has shown that the Guanches may in fact be the result of an aboriginal tribe, natural to the islands, and their mix to the nomad tribes from the Sahara. The study even contemplates the idea that perhaps the Guanche DNA sequence mutated due to the settlement of the tribes in the islands affected by the new environment they were exposed to. However Spanish scholars from the University of La Laguna (Tenerife) believe it is likely the original population of the islands was of Punic-Phoenician ascendency. Yet others like Professor D. Juan Álvarez Delgado are inclined to believe that the islands became first inhabited when prisoners from the Numidian kingdom were abandoned in this location during the 1st century BC. But in any case, their actual geographical genesis is fairly complicated to identify. This cast shadow over our understanding of the Guanche identity and cultural traditions from an archaeological and ethnographic point of view.

The occupation of the islands by the Guanches is another matter that historians face. It is recorded by Pliny the Elder that the archipelago was not inhabited when the expedition of Hanno the Navigator visited the islands in the 5th Century BC. However, Pliny does advise that the Carthaginians did see ruins in the landscape, so this may suggest there were other people populating the islands before the Guanche settled there. Moreover, it seems that depending on the island, the name of this aboriginal people changed – Guanche is supposed to refer only to the inhabitants of Tenerife, while we have other names such as Gomeros for those living in La Gomera, or Canarii for those of Gran Canaria. Where all these people Guanche or of Guanche ethnic? Did the different names relate to the island they inhabited or to their ethnic background? This is almost impossible to determine. In any case we do know that the Canary Islands were well-known to their European and African neighbours – the Romans traded there with the locals and gave the islands individual names, and many Arab navigators and travellers visited this location during the early Middle Ages. From a historical point of view, the brutal invasion of the islands during the 15th century by the Spanish army does certainly make things complicated. Although some artefacts survive in the African continent, most of them could be related to Berber communities, so it is difficult to establish whether they are purely of Guanche origin, a mix, or neither. By 1496, Spain imposed its definitive rule over the archipelago, defeating for good the reminiscence of the Guanche opposition and absorbing them into their social structure. We know the Guanche did not easily let the Spaniards in as this is commemorate in several statues around the islands. Particularly this is symbolised by the statues of Bencomo – principal caudillo Guanche of the resistance. Although many cultural traditions remain, these are now mingled with customs from insular Iberia, so it is difficult to establish where the Guanche synergy begins and where the Spanish influence ends.

However there are a few things that remain from Guanche culture known to us. Of particular interest is their religious practices. It seems the Guanche culture had its own deities and they all varied from one island to another, although the concepts for each major god remain unchanged. Achaman was the supreme deity for the inhabitants of Tenerife, and he was ruler of the skies and thunder. This figure was replicated in the other islands under the names of Acoran (Gran Canaria), Abora (La Palma), Orahan (Gomera), Eraorahan (El Hierro). There was also a malign deity that inhabited the insides of the volcano Teide called Guayota. According to the legend, Guayota captured the god Magec – Sun deity – and the Guanches implored Achaman to rescue him and after a long battle Achaman prevailed and rescued Magec. As a punishment he trapped Guayota inside the Teide. Ever since the eruptions were interpreted by the inhabitants of the islands as the god trying to escape. There is a reminisce to the god Magec in the modern culture of Tenerife and the islands with the figure of the mago – which is the name people of higher social status gave to the peasants who worshipped Magec praying for good harvests.

There is one further aspect that has brought mysterious allegations around the Guanche people, which is the discovery of the pyramids investigated by Thor Heyerdahl at Guimar. Heyerdahl maintained that these were erected by the old Guanche population and that they were some sort of ritual site, which many conspiracy theorist have associated with similar builds in Meso and South America. However archaeological surveys from the 1990s seem to point out that these were constructed in the 19th century for agricultural purposes like the modern terrazas used all across the Canary Islands. However there is still room for interpretation and not all scholars are convinced by either theory.

Perhaps we have not learnt all that much about the Guanche people – or at least not as much as I would like. But here is to a little introduction to the known facts of this culture and to shedding some light on a part of Spanish history which is usually not mentioned in schools, gran narratives or known to the ordinary man. Hopefully the new scholarships of the 21st century will bring forward new hypothesis and discoveries on these people.

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