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Guanche health and fitness 

The Guanches of Tenerife, like other Neolithic people around the world, led an active outdoor life and that’s not so surprising because they were farmers. They were supposed to be very strong and agile, apparently the shepherds could run so fast that they could catch a runaway goat. The Guanches also had a variety of sports consisting of wrestling, which is still popular today, leaping, pole vaulting (both necessary skills to get across ravines), and war games such as stone throwing and spear throwing.

 But what did the Guanches look like? At Candelaria there are nine statues of men representing the nine Guanche menceys, or kings. They are well-proportioned, clean-limbed and noble in their appe-arance, but this image is quite a bit different from a previous row of statues that stood in the 1970’s, that depicted thick-limbed, bulky, crudely-formed figures. Perhaps the reason for this change in perception of identity was the discovery, by DNA analysis, that a large percentage of islanders are descended from the Guanches, and, much to everyone’s relief, the real Guanches looked nothing like them. No-one wanted to be related to someone who looked like one of the seven dwarves and a couple of their mates after a bad night out.

With regard to the health of the Guanches, in a study of mummies some years ago there was little sign of common infectious diseases, but the nutrition, the ailments and injuries of the individuals were identified, as well as attempts at treatment. 170 mummies were examined by modern methods and a lot of intimate details came to light. The results showed that men were on average strongly built and lean at 1.71m (5’8″) tall and women were 1.57m (5’2″). Their diet had a low vegetable content, meat and dairy foods predominated (the farmers were pastoralists more than arable farmers), and flour, or gofio, was made from barley; there was little evidence of seafood. Folklore recounts that their only drinks were water and a cordial made from berries of the small mocan tree. This all sounds very healthful but the mummies showed that, like us, the Guanches had their sicknesses and aches and pains.

Common to all the adult Guanches was a problem with teeth. Although there was little incidence of dental caries or sugar decay, toothache was a problem due to the method by which the gofio flour was prepared. Unknown to the natives, or indeed all prehistoric peoples including the Egyptians, the quern stones, or hand grinding mills, would shed stone dust that became mixed with the flour to form what was in effect a grinding paste that gradually wore away the crowns of their teeth down to the nerve, which led to abscesses in the jaw that were incurable. The act of eating must have been a painful process later in life.

The ailments and the few infectious diseases that could be detected were frontal sinusitis, post traumatic osteomyelitis, non-specific osteoperiostitis (no, I don’t know what they are either), and possibly tuberculosis. There was also evidence of benign tumours. Other natural ailments were bone-related. Arthritis, osteoarthritis and other conditions of the joints are very common through natural aging, but in the case of the Guanches it was more commonly acquired through wear and tear.

There were frequent occurrences of broken bones, including a high frequency of injuries to the skull (perhaps continually bashing their heads accidentally on the roofs of their gloomy caves was the cause), although the recovery rate from head injuries was high. There was an indication of problems caused by inbreeding by the fairly small population of the island, shown by the high instance of congenital malformations, in particular spina bifida, with up to 50% occurrence in some area samples.

Living in caves, where fires for lighting and cooking had to be lit frequently, if they weren’t continually alight, also caused problems. The inhalation of smoke fumes caused lung troubles and hardened arteries.

The limited diet that was laden with meat and dairy foods with few vegetables had its own set of illnesses. Written sources of information describe bouts of gastroenteritis and diarrhoea that were often fatal. Surprisingly, pneumonia was also a common disease, also fatal, but then it can be cold and damp on Tenerife. Then, to cap it all, during the last days of Guanche independence it would seem that the Spanish invaders brought typhus with them. Shortly after the conquest an epidemic called the ‘modorra’ caused the death of a large proportion of the native population at the rate of up to one hundred a day.

To counter all these ailments the Guanches practiced forms of medicine that sound no worse than the ‘quack’ cures of England in days of old. Mutton grease was used as basis to cure everything, mainly as a panacea, milk whey was used for purging, honey made from mocan was intended to cure gastroenteritis, diarrhoea and pneumonia, and dragon’s blood extracted from the famous tree was also administered for diarrhoea, dysentery, haemorrhages and eczema. Fractures in the mummies can be seen to have healed thoroughly, implying that the Guanches knew the value of complete rest during convalescence, while physical intervention consisted of the cauterisation of veins and wounds, and its opposite, that good old medieval cure-all, bleeding, and they also practised brain surgery. Brain surgery!? This consisted of cutting a hole in the skull with a piece of stone, called obsidian, the Tenerife equivalent of flint, in order to release the evil spirits. But you have to wonder, under what sort of anaesthetic was the operation carried out? Hallucinatory drugs? Alcohol? Or was the patient simply strapped down? It doesn’t bear thinking about and yet the mummies show that people actually survived this procedure.

Apart from all that, life in this island paradise was fine, provided you didn’t mind being dead by the age of thirty*. If after reading this article you’d like to have a closer look at the Guanche NHS, or in fact anything to do with their lives, visit the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre in Santa Cruz and be prepared to spend the day there. (*One exception was a chap who lived to the ripe old age of 55.)