The Guanche mystery, people of the Canaries
The Guanches, from the Berber word igwanchiyen, were the only indigenous people known to the Canaries when the first Europeans came to the archipelago.
Their disappeared culture has also left its mark on some of the other volcanic islands of Macaronesia: Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde and Selvagens Islands.
The usual toponyms of the archipelago, like the studies of Y chromosomes carried out on the remains of Guanches mummies and on DNA, tend to prove the Berber origin of the native Canarians.
Finally, rock paintings were discovered on most islands in the 18th century. In 1878, René Verneau, a French anthropologist, discovered Libyan inscriptions of Maurretan origin. The Guanches are also the inventors of a whistling language, Silbo, still practiced on the island of La Gomera.
The Silbo gomero
Inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the whistled language of the island of La Gomera, Silbo, has been used since ancient times by the Guanches.
Used nowadays only on this island of 300 000 inhabitants on which one comes mainly to devote oneself to excursions, the silbo was invented so that people can communicate between them beyond the valleys and the gorges which characterize this island of the Canaries. A tradition that has been so perpetuated that silbo learning is integrated into the gomero educational system.
True language, the sounds practiced with one or two fingers in the mouth allow to modulate different tones of various lengths corresponding to words then sentences. The range of these whistles can reach several kilometers.
It should be noted that this whistling language is also used by the Berber shepherds of the Moroccan High Atlas.
The first trips
If it appears that the settlement of the archipelago was known to the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, chronologies dating from the 3rd century BC have been found in a cave in Tenerife (Cave of the Guanches in Icod de los Vinos).
The first known voyage that of Hanon, a rich Carthaginian merchant, would have taken place around the 5th century BC.
In his journey described in the”Hannon’s Journey”, it is mentioned that Hannon, exploring new trade routes along the African continent, found an island deserted by its inhabitants, but nevertheless provided with many temples.
Later, Pliny the Elder reports in the 1st century that the Berber king Juba II of Mauritania wanted to list the fauna and flora of the archipelago of which he visited four of the islands and recognized a fifth. His description of the islands identified them and that of Tenerife was the last and sixth stage of his journey.
If it does not mention the presence of natives, it nevertheless underlines the existence of a temple on Lanzarote as well as ruins of buildings on Gran Canaria.
The end of a people
The absence of inhabitants mentioned during these trips and the archaeological research undertaken do not make it possible to determine whether the Guanches occupied some of these islands permanently.
The fact that Islam did not penetrate the Canary Islands’ indigenous populations during its westward expansion suggests that the settlement of the Canaries would be the furthest westward migration of the Berbers between the 1st century and the Muslim conquest of the 7th century.
Most of the Guanches were exterminated during the Spanish conquest of the archipelago in the 15th century. The vast majority of the survivors, forcibly converted to Christianity, were sold into slavery, others married the conquerors…
This one was very disparate from one island to another. Before the arrival of the European conquerors, the island of Tenerife had up to nine kingdoms. All the land belonged to the chiefs who rented it to their subjects. In some islands, political office was hereditary, while in others officials were elected.
On Gran Canaria, suicide was honorable and it was not uncommon that when a chief was enthroned, one of his subjects threw himself from a ravine to pay tribute to him.
Polygamy was practised on some islands while on others monogamy was the rule. Women were respected and any blow against any of them was considered a crime and severely punished.
If the Guanches lived mainly in natural or artificial caves, they also built huts and small fortifications where digging caves proved impossible. The basis of their food was roasted cereal.
They mainly wore clothing made of goatskin or textile fibres, as shown by those found in graves in Gran Canaria, and loved jewellery. These were made of wood, shells or stone.
The use of smooth or polished ceramic beads, usually black and red, was widespread. The Guanches also painted their bodies with pintaderas, clay objects of various colours. Their pottery was simple and without decoration.
As for their weapons, they consisted of axes in polished stone or cut obsidian as in Tenerife. Javelins, spears and clubs have also been recorded.
If the belief in demons was general, the belief in a supreme Being named Acoran in Gran Canaria was also professed. The women of El Hierro worshipped the goddess Moneiba, while on other islands the Sun, Moon, Earth and Stars were worshipped. These deities who always lived on the tops of the mountains used to come down from them to listen to the prayers of their faithful.
The demon of Tenerife, named Guayota, lived at the top of the Teide volcano, the hell that the natives called Echeyde.
Wars and personal disputes were outlawed during religious holidays and in times of unrest, the Guanches used to lead their herds in consecrated meadows. There, the lambs were separated from their mothers so that their bleating attracted the pity of Acoran whose name varied more or less from one island to another.
In Palma, the Guanches left the old men who wanted to die alone. With their farewells to their loved ones, they were taken to a sepulchral cave with a single bowl of milk.
For religious purposes, different techniques, similar to those practiced in ancient Egypt, allowed the dead to be embalmed to promote their ascension and, at the same time, to honour their memories by keeping their mummified remains as well as possible.
It is at the Archaeological Museum of Tenerife in Santa Cruz that one can admire most of these mummies that have long aroused the curiosity of many scientists. Some of these Canary mummies are also exhibited throughout the world: at the Louvre in Paris, at the National Archaeological Museum in Madrid or at the British Museum in London.