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The arrival of the Guanches 

Almost as soon as you step off the plane at the airport you hear about the Guanches, the aboriginal natives of Tenerife who wore skins, used stone tools and lived in caves. They’re something of a novelty, a tourist theme, but for a lot of people the reaction is, “Thank you, not now, let’s get to the beach.” However, some readers might like to know more.

When it comes to discovering the origins of the Guanches, there’s not a lot to go on. Guanche tradition said that sixty people came to Tenerife from an unknown place and settled near Icod, which in their language meant “the place of union of the son of the great one”. This is not a lot of help, and there could be no first-hand evidence of the Guanche society, because their history was written by Father Alonso de Espinosa between 1580 and 1590, a hundred years after the Spanish conquered Tenerife. But all is not lost, because arch-aeological discoveries are continually being made. For instance, a recent flood in the cave of Belmaco on the island of La Palma, already well-known for its native archaeology, revealed further layers of occupation for the archaeologists to go at. Then in biological terms, since the advent of DNA analysis, more has been discovered about the survival of the Guanche race in today’s islanders, a surprising number of whom can claim Guanche ancestry. But, in a nutshell, since Espinosa’s day nothing drastically new has been revealed about these stone-age savages.

So, stone-age savages, eh? ‘Stone-age’, yes, ‘savage’, questionable. This short series of articles will look at just how ‘savage’ the Guanches were compared to their so-called betters, the ‘civilised’ Europeans. But first, let’s have a look at their origins (and this is the unofficial, ‘bootleg’ version. Any mistakes and misunderstandings are all my own work.)

It’s not hard to find a book about the Guanches. Many have been written but they’re all variations on the original theme written by Espinosa, unless you read archa-eological research papers, which only serve to confirm their Neolithic, or New Stone Age, way of life. The story usually begins, as it has to, by telling of the Canary Islands as the mythological ‘Atlantis’, or ‘The Fortunate Islands’, or ‘The Hesperides’, but they are only myths. Factual accounts of the islands begin to appear during the Roman era and tangible evidence for this is in Roman amphorae, or storage jars, of the 2nd to 4th centuries that have been found off the coast of La Palma and elsewhere, proof that ships were here during that time. Other hard evidence is in a few alphabet letters carved on rocks, a few spoken words of the Guanche language that have survived, as well as the DNA tests that all got to prove that the first Canary Islanders were mainly descended from Berber tribes of North Africa.

When the Spaniards arrived at the turn of the 14th/15th century they found a strange circumstance. As well as finding a race of people who were still living in the Stone-Age, they found that there was no communication between the islands, there never had been, even though they are in sight of each other, and none of the islanders, who were farmers, had any knowledge or legends about navigation. So, if the natives weren’t sailors and never had been, how did they get here? If they had been navigators at one time, it would possible for a whole prehistoric comm-unity to set sail into the unknown on the off-chance of finding a new home over the horizon. Thor Heyerdal proved it, just go to Guimar to find out. But the Polynesian islanders have been seamen since time immemorial, not so the Canarians.

The accepted theory is that after a revolt by the Berbers against their Roman over-lords, the Romans banished them to these remote, uninhabited islands that were already known to exist, complete with livestock, seed crops and all the necessaries to start farming. This was very generous of them. In Britain, and everywhere else in the Roman Empire, if anyone said ‘Boo!’ to a Roman, they would be killed on the spot, their village would be burned and their wives and children taken into slavery. So for myself I have doubts about that theory. There is an alternative, and for me preferable, idea to this for the origin of the Guanches, which is that around 100AD King Juba II of Mauretania colonised the Canary Islands. According to legend, King Juba is the man who is supposed to have named the islands after large dogs that were found there. (I don’t think anyone has put forward a theory as to how the dogs got to the islands.)

Juba was a favourite of two Roman emperors, Julius Caesar and Augustus. As a boy he had been brought up in Rome, he was a military leader who was also well educated, he was a researcher, the author of several books, and who in general seems to have had an open, inquiring mind. Emperor Augustus made him King Juba II of Mauretania, which is more or less modern-day Morocco, where the people were Berbers. The Roman Empire encompassed lands around the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and western and northern Europe, what would they care about a few uninhabited, unproductive little islands off the coast of Africa on the way to nowhere? Any colonisation would have been a drain on the economy that would take a long time to give a return on the investment; the Empire had to pay its way and send revenues to Rome. However if Juba, who is known to have instigated several expeditions, including the one to the Canaries, wanted to play at building empires without treading on the toes of Rome, the Canaries were the perfect opportunity and Mauretania was conveniently situated to maintain contact and gover-nance.

We can imagine Juba’s inducement to prospective settlers – the carrot – leave your semi-desert farms for a lush paradise – and the stick – leave your semi-desert farms or else. It’s worth pointing out that the communities of each of the Canary Islands, although coming from the same gene stock and general part of North Africa, have certain cultural differences. This could be accounted for by King Juba obtaining his colonists, the farmers, from different regions of his kingdom, if that’s what happened. And as to the Guanches’ lack of navigational skills, the settlers had no more need to know about navigation than we do about how to fly an aeroplane. Communication with the mainland would be carried out by the specialists, the sailors and merchant traders. But when the Roman Empire collapsed after the invasions of the Goths and Visigoths, taking Mauretania with it, the lines of communication were broken, so this little group of islands was forgotten about until the arrival of Europeans almost a thousand years later.