Europeans “re-discovered” the Fortunate Islands in the first half of the XIVth century. They found living there a people who later came to be known as the Guanches, and who are still the object of great mystery. They had to have arrived by sea and they arrived with their domesticated animals: goats, sheep, pigs and dogs. They brought with them wheat and barley. They came from North Africa, originating from the same stock as the Berbers of the Atlas mountains. The ancestors of the Guanches arrived by sea, colonized the islands… and then “forgot” how to sail! When the Europeans landed on the Canaries, they discovered a stone age culture based on shepherding, fruit gathering and a very limited agriculture. This same base was common to all the islands, but each island had developed into its own microcosm to the point where even the language had differentiated into distinct dialects. The islands were cut off one from the other as the natives did not know the art of navigation. They fished only in coastal tidal pools. This is one of the great enigmas of the Guanches. How was it possible for a race of people to reach the shores of these tiny islands by sea, live surrounded by ocean with – on several islands – enormous forests of tall trees for raw material and yet ignore the sea, living as it were with their back turned to it? Several possible answers to this mystery have been offered. Perhaps the people of the Canaries were simple shepherds who had been transported to the islands by a sailing people and later forgotten and left to fate. Other explanations might be found in the extraordinary difficulty of navigating the oceans surrounding the Canaries due to the strong currents flowing to the West and the trade winds blowing as strongly almost year round.
Though most vocabulary had been forgotton, even in todays life some words can be tracked directly to aboriginal heritage, most visible in some of the islands’ name. Guanche was the name by which the natives of Tenerife called themselves. Guan Chenech meant “Man from Chenech”, or man from Tenerife. With the passage of time, the term Guanche became identified with all the native peoples of the Canaries.
The names of the different islands and of their inhabitants (for those that are known) are as follows:
Tenerife: Chenech, Chinech or Achinech. It would seem that the natives of La Palma, seeing the snow-covered peak of the Teide on the horizon, called that island Ten-er-efez, “White Mountain” (from Ten, teno, dun, duna = mountain, and er-efez = white). Achenech was inhabited by the Guan Chenech, the men from Chenech.
Fuerteventura: Maxorata, inhabited by the Majoreros or Maxos.
Gran Canaria: Tamaran, also called Canaria, was inhabited by the Canarii.
La Palma: Benahoare, pronounced “Ben-Ajuar”, and meaning “from the tribe of Ahoare” (tribe of the African Atlas). Island inhabited by the Auaritas.
La Gomera: Gomera, inhabited by the Gomeros.
El Hierro: Hero, inhabited by the Bimbaches.
According to the tales of the European conquerors, the Guanches were a “highly beautiful white race, tall, muscular, and with a great many blondes amongst their numbers” Their great height must be understood in relation to the average height of Europeans at that time. As for the presence of blondes, even today after many centuries of invasions and intermarriage, a heritage of blond hair and blue eyes is easily found among modern day Berbers of the Atlas region in Africa.
According to old legends and traditions, the island of Tenerife was once governed by a single Mencey or king called Tinerfe the Great. It appears he lived in the region of Adeje in the southwestern corner of the island. After his death, the island was divided up between his sons and grandsons. The fact is that, upon the arrival of the Europeans, Tenerife had 9 independent Menceys. Their minuscule kingdoms were called Anaga, Tegueste, Tacoronte, Taoro, Icod, Daute, Adeje, Abona and Güimar. These kingdoms (or Menceyatos) extended from the seashore high up the slopes of the central mountain chain. The very tops of these central mountains, including Teide, seem to hab been common mountain land used by the shepherds of the various Menceyatos to pasture their herds during the summer months when the vegetation in the coastal areas dried up and grew scarce. This upper region was essential to the desert Menceyatos in the South of the island (Adeje, Abona and Güimar), where the lack of rainfall makes the annual transfer of the herds to the mountains a necessity. In contrast, the “rich” neighbors to the North seemed to be able to allow themselves the luxury of raising small, but flourishing, crops of wheat, barley, peas and beans alongside their herds. Anaga was a special Menceyato. It occupied the eastern peninsula of the island and included all the area from the coast right up to the top of the land mass which forms it. The Guanches used the word Guañac (gwan-yac) to refer to what Europeans call “Fatherland”, State or Republic. Although all the Menceys were independent and supreme lords over their lands, one of them – the Mencey of Taoro – appeared to have played the role of first among equals. The capital of his lands was located in the Valley of Arautava or Arautapola, today known as the Valley of Orotava. His territory, which centuries later is still praised as a sort of paradise, seems to have been the heart of Tenerife during the war for conquest. The Mencey of Taoro was given the special honorific title of Quevehi, “Your Majesty”, “Your Highness”.
The warriors of the Guanches obeyed a Sigoñe (military chief), and were armed with a banot (wooden spear) and stones, many of which were polished down to have sharp edges. They were genuine masters at throwing these missiles. They also had teniques, or stones wrapped in leather held in place by thongs, which they used as deadly bludgeons. They proved their strength and prowess by defeating and destroying nearly all of the Castillian expeditionary force in 1494 at a place in Northern Tenerife which they called Acentejo (Running Waters) and where later was founded the village of “La Matanza de Acentejo” (the Massacre of Acentejo). Warriors went naked to war, although normally they wore tamarcos, capes of goat skin to protect them from the cold of the mountains. On some islands they also wore skirts made from palm fibers. Depending on the season, the activity and the social class, other pieces of clothing had been worn: xercos (pigskin shoes or sandals), huirmas (pieces of leather worn like sleeves to protect the arms), guaycas (leather leggings covering the area between the ankle and the knee), and the ahico (a type of leather shirt).
Although Guanche society was patriarchal, the role of women was very important. On several islands, inheritance rights had been passed down from the mother and women were responsible for the transfer of royal power. Such was the case on Gran Canaria where Queen Atidamana is still remembered. Similarly, when finally Gran Canaria surrendered to the Castillian troops, they did so bringing out a young girl, the daughter of the last Guanarteme (King of the island), to present her with the highest honors to their new overlords. She represented the power and legitimacy of the people’s sovereignty. In other instances, the women were so fierce during combat, or in encouraging and helping their men in combat that the conquistadors spoke of the “the amazons” of the island of La Palma. Or they told legendary tales of Guacimara, royal princess of Anaga (Tenerife) who took part in the struggle against those who tried to land on the beaches of Añaza. Women also played an important role in stories mixed with legend which tell of the heroism displayed by princesses and aristocrats who preferred to throw themselves from the cliffs rather than be taken captive by the Europeans. This ritual suicide, symbol of love for freedom, was practiced not only by women, but also by some men of the royal families, and was preceded by the cry Vacaguaré! (I want to die!). Women in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, however, seem to have played a more submissive role, where they were given as a sign of hospitality to guests to accompany them to bed. Nor did women have an easy time in times of scarcity or overpopulation. When the population reached greater numbers that what was felt the land could sustain, female infanticide was practiced on the islands of La Palma and Gran Canaria. They killed all new born female babies unless it was the first born of the family. In this case, the child was respected as the perpetuator of the family line.
Usually a village consisted of series of caves in the surrounding slopes. The volcanic lands of Tenerife are rich in caves and tunnels formed by the lava. As a result, only rarely buildings had been found. When the absence of caves required it, small structures were built of stones with no mortar and then covered with a roof of branches and leaves. In contrast, the art of building was more advanced on the island of Gran Canaria. Dwellings were dug in areas of granular volcanic soil, and it is said that the walls of the homes of the Guanartemes (kings) were covered with wooden planks. The walls of houses and caves were also often painted with geometric designs on this island. The cave dwellings of Tenerife usually had part of their opening covered over with a wall of stone, leaving only enough room to go in and out. Most of the time, life took place in the open air.
Every Day Life
Women formed gánigos (vessels) of various sizes and shapes: round, oval, with or without handles. A few had been decorated with a pointed stick in rough geometric, linear designs or with solar symbols. It was their work as well to gather wild fruits and plants such as pinion nuts, ferns or toya and mocán (the fruit from one of the trees which make up the laurisilva); or they worked at harvesting the tano or taro (barley), irichen (wheat), hacichey (peas) and broadbeans. Preparing the soil for planting had been the work for the men who used plows made from goats horns to perform the task. Sowing the crop had been left to the women as a sign of fertility. Men were also responsible for fashioning tools and weapons: awls, cutting stones, grind stones and mills, etc. Some men played the role as shepherds guarding large herds of ara and haña on the mountain slopes. These were special breeds of small goats and sheep with straight wool. They grazed on armenine, or pasture land. Some caddle are called guanil or loose livestock which grazed freely. Although the livestock was not marked, the shepherds knew each and every one of their animals. This skill in the Guanche shepherds was a source of constant amazement to the European settlers. The shepherds tanned and cured the hides of goats and sheep with stone and bone tools, and sew them using tendons or thin strips of leather for thread and bone needles. The tabona was a highly prized tool, sort of sharp cutting knife made from shards of obsidian (volcanic glass). The shepherds milked the goats and sheep and fed the pigs in their goros (corrals).
The Guanche diet was based on their livestock. Meat was not an everyday food, especially in the lower classes. But on holidays and at feast time, sheep, goat and even dog meat were a delicacy within reach of everyone. One very savory dish was tamazanona or barley cooked with meat and lard. Milk (ahof) was a staple food, as was the nowadays famous Canarian gofio, or flour ground from roasted grain. Barley gofio was called ahoren. Lard (amulán) and cheese were also daily foods. Fruits and roots were often found in the diet and babies were given, in addition to mothers milk, a sort of pudding made of fern roots dipped in lard called aguaman.
Ceremonies, Rituals and Beliefs
On top of the society stood the Mencey. Under him were the achimencey (nobles), who justified their status through their family ties with the royalty. The cichiciquitzos formed an intermediary social level, and at the bottom of society were the achicaxna, or plebe. All the land and livestock belonged to the Mencey who distributed them every year among the upper classes according to the merits and needs of each family group. The Mencey, therefore, fulfilled the important economic role of redistributing the wealth, given that he covered the costs of the public festivities and ceremonies for which the food came from the royal stores.
Tenerife does not appear to have had a priestly class as this function was performed by the Mencey (for the public ceremonies of the Guañac or State). However, the figure of the Guañameñe existed, which was a kind of prophet or soothsayer who command great respect and veneration. In the Tagoror or Council the important decisions affecting the Menceyato were made. These meetings were hold in a special place where the stone seats were arranged in a circle. In many parts of the island of Tenerife , the Tagoror is hold near sacred rocks or trees. The dragos (dracaena drago), a tree endemic to Macaronesia which often lives for several centuries and which has a blood red sap with medicinal properties, were often chosen as places with special meaning. The arrival of the Mencey was announced with bucios, conch shell horns. The symbol of royal power was the añepa (anyepa), a scepter of carved wood.
The Guanches believed in the existence of a supreme god, whom they identified as Magec (the Sun), but whom they referred to in many different ways: Achaman (The Heavens), Achuhuran Achahucanac (Great and Sublime God), Achguayaxerax Achoron Achaman (the Sustainer of Heaven and Earth). They also seem to have had a Mother Goddess, Achmayex Achguayaxerax Achoron Achaman (The Mother of the Sustainer of Heaven and Earth), or Achguayaxiraxi (Preserving Principle of Live). This Mother Goddess was rapidly identified with the Virgin Mary of the Christians, even to the point where the conquistadors found a statue of Our Lady of Candelaria – brought to the islands by missionaries – which the Guanches worshipped in a cave in the Menceyato of Güimar.
Likewise, the Guanches also maintained cultic relations with a god of evil, Guayota (identified as the devil by the Christian conquistadors), which lived in Echeyde, the Teide, which means “the Ominous One”. Guayota does not appear to have been loved, but rather feared and respected. By night it took on the form of a solitary dog; an encounter with him was very dangerous.
In addition to these major gods, the Guanches practiced a religion based on naturalist polytheism. They left offerings on rocks and in caves and other natural openings. All the islands had sacred places formed of mountains or rocks which held the Earth and the Heavens in equilibrium. In Tenerife, Teide always held the privileged position in this cult. Throughout the surrounding region, which nowadays is the National Park Las Cañadas del Teide, offerings of clay vessels and tools are still discovered as they were when deposited in their nooks and crannies. These rituals were practices on the island to become one with the spirit of the natural forces or to appease them in their anger. The family unit also had very rude figures which served as small idols for family worship. These normally had reference to fertility and the good health of men and animals.
There were four major ceremonies in Guanche society. One was the ceremony of proclaiming a new Mencey. Another was the ritual practiced in times of drought. The other two were cyclical rites which were repeated every achanó or year. These were the festivals celebrating the New Year at the arrival of Spring, and the Great Annual Festival of Beñasmen – the Harvest Festival.
1.) The Proclaiming of the New Mencey
When the Mencey died, his heir was proclaimed as the new Mencey. But the succession was not necessarily from father to son. The title could also be passed from brother to brother. In any case, it was the duty of the Tagoror (Council) to elect the new King.
The proclamation included the impressive ceremony of the ancestor’s bone. A bone of the most ancient ancestor of the dynasty was carefully guarded, wrapped in fine skins. This bone was brought forth ceremoniously and kissed by the new Mencey. Then, each member of the Tagoror recognized him as King, pronouncing the words “Agoñe Yacorán Iñatzahaña Chacoñamet” (I swear by this bone of He who made you great).
2.) The Rain Ritual
In periods of drought, the entire village fasted and abstained from dancing and other entertainment. They marched in procession with their livestock, to certain elevated places. There they separated the baby goats and sheep from their mothers. Everyone cried and screamed while the distraught animals bleated. They believed that in so doing the gods would take pity on the people and their livestock and would send rain. Several of these special places are still called Bailadero or Baladero, from the Spanish verb “balar”, to bleat.
3.) The Feast of the New Year
The Guanches used a lunar calendar. The Guanche achanó (year) began toward the end of April, beginning of May and coincided with the spring festivals when the new livestock was in full vigor. The period was celebrated with feasts, dances and sports events.
4.) The Harvest Festival
The Great Annual Festival was, without a doubt, the Beñasmen or Harvest Festival which was celebrated between July and August. All wars and skirmishes between the various Menceyatos had to end and a sacred truce went into effect to facilitate the people coming together in banquets, dances and competitions. The Mencey fulfilled the role of redistributing the wealth by feeding the entire population during the festivities.
In times of festival, the people adorned themselves and their villages with flowers, leaves and branches. Important sports contest were held to test the competitors’ skills in running, jumping, climbing, throwing and avoiding spears, hand-to-hand combat with poles, etc. They practiced a form of wrestling similar to that of Greece and Rome which, centuries later, is still alive and well and is known as Lucha Canaria (Canarian Wrestling). It consists in throwing ones opponent to the ground or outside a defined area by making him lose his balance.
The Guanches had few musical instruments: sticks to beat together, conch shells, small stones in a clay jar, and their hands. However, they enjoyed singing and dancing. One Guanche dance which is still performed today by Canarians is the Tajaraste. Another Guanche dance became famous in the XVIth century when a refined version of it became fashionable in all the courts of Europe under the name of “El Canario” (”the Canary”, or “the Canarian”).
When a Guanche died, especially if he were an achimencey or noble, a long period of mourning and preparation for the afterlife began. It is not known precisely what the Guanches believed about death. Reports from the chroniclers say they believed there was another life after death, and that the spirits of evil men lived in Teide, or Echeyde (the Ominous One), while the spirit of those who had been good lived in the region of Aguere, the paradise valley which is now the location of the city of La Laguna. But these stories appear already to be colored with the Christian vision of the afterlife. The Guanches were submitted to a slow process of cultural indoctrination at the hands of Christian missionaries which lasted at least a century before the Guanches were finally conquered. A more ancient ritual seems to have consisted in removing the inner organs from the body of a dead Mencey and placing them in a basket. A young volunteer would then throw himself from the top of a cliff into the sea with the basket. Before committing the act of ritual suicide, the youth would be entrusted with messages for the dead: news about each family, about how the livestock had increased in number, about the health of friends and relatives. This youth was the messenger between the land of the living and the world of the dead. It is certain, however, that they did seem to have some concept of an afterlife for which they carefully prepared the bodies of their dead. When a Guanche died, his body was washed and filled and refilled day after day with ointments prepared from various plants and minerals according to a formula now lost to us. The body was placed in the sun over a period of several weeks until thoroughly dried, thus becoming a mummy or xaxo. Throughout this lengthy process the family and friends of the dead continued their mourning. Once prepared, the xaxo was wrapped in skins painted or marked in such a way as to permit later identification. The skins were then sewn up to form a tight casing. Finally the body was placed in the cave which served as the family tomb, on raised boards to keep it off the ground. Offerings were placed alongside the body: ornaments (collars of clay beads and pigs teeth), clay gánigos, limpet shells and spears. If the dead were a Mencey, he was buried with his añepa, the sceptre which symbolized his royal power.
Ever since the second half of the XIIIth century Europeans (Genoans, Portuguese, Castillians) had landed on these shores, stealing livestock and capturing lone shepherds to carry them off in their strange ships to sell them as slaves in far-off Europe. Islands like Lanzarote and Fuerteventura have suffered a devastating loss in men and livestock due to these attacks. The situation, however, had been even more serious since the beginning of the XIVth century.
The Kingdom of Castille had began conquering the island of Lanzarote by means of an expedition led by the Norman mercenaries Jean de Bethencourt and Gadifer de La Salle in the year 1402. Between this year and 1478, the Castillians conquered Fuerteventura, El Hierro and La Gomera. Castille and Portugal entered into rivalry over the right to conquer the islands, but in 1479 Portugal renounced to the Canaries in the Treaty of Alcaçovas. In 1478, the Catholic King and Queen, Isabel and Ferdinand, ordered the conquest of Gran Canaria. Conquering this island was no easy task, as the Canarians resisted heroically. Finally, La Palma was conquered in 1493, likewise after cruel and bloody battle. Almost a century pasted since the conquest of Lanzarote, and Tenerife was still holding out against the invaders.
Alonso Fernández de Lugo arrived from Gran Canaria and landed at Añaza Beach, in the boundary between the Menceydoms of Anaga and Güimar. He arrived with Spanish troops, but also with a considerable number of natives of Gran Canaria who have been christianized. Their island had been part of the Kingdom of Castile for the last 20 years. On 3 May 1494 a solemn mass was hold at the beach, and the “Adelantado” (official title of Fernández de Lugo), putting in a wooden cross, founded the Royal Camp of Santa Cruz de Tenerife -Holy Cross of Tenerife. It is the city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, which was the capital town of the Canary Islands along the 19th century, and which is now -more than 200.000 pop.- the seat of the Islands’ Parliament.
Guanches DNA and anthropology bits.
The prehistoric colonisation of the Canary Islands by the Guanches (native Canarians) woke up great expectation about their origin, since the Europeans conquest of the Archipelago. Here, we report mitochondrial DNA analysis (HVRI sequences and RFLPs) of aborigine remains around 1000 years old. The sequences retrieved show that the Guanches possessed U6b1 lineages that are in the present day Canarian population, but not in Africans. In turn, U6b, the phylogenetically closest ancestor found in Africa, is not present in the Canary Islands. Comparisons with other populations relate the Guanches with the actual inhabitants of the Archipelago and with Moroccan Berbers. This shows that, despite the continuous changes suffered by the population (Spanish colonisation, slave trade), aboriginal mtDNA lineages constitute a considerable proportion of the Canarian gene pool. Although the Berbers are the most probable ancestors of the Guanches, it is deduced that important human movements have reshaped Northwest Africa after the migratory wave to the Canary Islands.
Cranio-facial similarities of the Guanches (Canary Islands).