Guanche art and artefacts
By comparison with other islands of the Canaries, the Guanche art of Tenerife is looked upon as the most primitive, although that doesn’t say a lot, because the rest of the archipelago was not so much more sophisticated.
Gran Canaria, where letters of the Berber alphabet have been found, is judged the most developed of the islands, although recognisable Berber letters have also been found on El Hierro, La Gomera and Tenerife. On La Palma there are spirals and circular patterns carved on rocks, much the same as found in Northumberland and elsewhere in Britain, and on the western fringe of mainland Europe. On Tenerife there seems to have been no evolution of art since Neolithic times. Apart from what appear to be rare instances of carvings of human figures, fish, turtles and even, and this must have been in the later days, ships, Tenerife rock art in the main is in the form of straight lines and grids simply scratched onto the surface of the bedrock, it’s hardly art at all. Perhaps the shepherds were just doodling in an idle moment, much as we do with pen and paper. With regard to Guanche pottery, it could be classified as either art or industry. Pottery finds have been almost exclusively of containers, called ‘ganigos’. They have been found all over the island and their purpose seems to have been purely functional with the absolute minimum of decoration, made for cooking and storage of food and liquid. The Guanches do not seem to have known about the wheel, so, even though the pots were round rather than square slabsided, they were shaped by hand. Decoration was usually limited to minute indentations around the rim, or occasional stripes, which themselves could have been functional, perhaps to aid in handling the vessel. The pots are unusual to north European eyes because, although their basic form is similar to prehistoric ware found in Britain, they often had two opposing handles in the shape of spouts, which they sometimes were but more often weren’t (seems like a lost opportunity). There have been occasional finds of spoons and plates, but it may be that these implements have simply just not survived to the present day to be discovered. It’s strange that there is no evidence of development by way of fashion coming and going, which makes the pots difficult to date, as in Roman pottery for example. The consistent style appears similar to that in vogue in North Africa at a time no earlier than the 2nd century A.D. There’s a nice display of pottery in the little museum in Puerto de la Cruz, that explains the various categories and their uses, but it might be an idea to take a torch with you, because the last time I went most of the lights in the display cases weren’t working.Many clay beads have been found, either spherical or cylin-drical, to show that the Guanches did have some aesthetic sensitivity after all. The beads have been found with Guanche mummies in the form of necklaces, bracelets and anklets. Necklace beads were also made from shells, fish bones, animal bones such as vertebrae, and wood. A range of objects that still intrigues researchers are small, flat, rectangular and triangular pieces of baked clay with a wide variety of embossed patterns. These are interpreted as being a form of printing block for use with dyes for leather or as tattoos for humans. There is also a small range of simple wood carvings that have survived in the form of staffs, or ‘anepas’, symbols of authority, identified by either a hemi-spherical or an oval knob at the top, and javelins, called ‘banots’. It’s possible that not just anybody could make these things; there are hints that potters and carpenters were specialists who were paid for their products in kind in a barter economy.The most enig-matic piece of art, if that’s what it is, is the fish-shaped ‘Zanata’ stone, found near Icod de los Vinos in 1992 and now on display in the Museum of Nature and Man in Santa Cruz. The alphabet lettering on this small stone is the only example of its kind to be found on Tenerife, although other letters have been found elsewhere on the island. They seem to be the exceptions to the rule of Tenerife being the most primitive island, and they form the most definite link between the Guanches of Tenerife with the Berber people. This special stone has a case all to itself and it makes us wonder, what was its purpose? What was its maker saying?
The Guanches, in common with other Neolithic people, lived a simple life and they were still semi-nomadic. They lived in the hills for part of the year and by the sea for the rest of the year. Because they were pastoralists, they had to look after their herds, so when one area of grazing was used up, they took their herds and flocks to places where the grazing was lush and so let the first ground recover. This practice, called ‘transhumance’ (a lovely word – sounds a bit sci-fi), was still carried out in the north of England until the end of the 16th century. For this reason the Guanches had no need for a large array of tools or implements, and those they did have were portable. Such arable farming as existed was carried out using implements that were very simple, and yet the Guanches made the best and most intelligent use of materials to hand. The tools consisted of hoes and rakes with long wooden handles that had prongs, or tines, made from sheep horns or goat horns. Perhaps if metal had been found on the island the story might have been different.
Guanche home comforts were likewise basic. Because there was no flax or cotton, clothing and bedding was made from lamb skin or sheep skin very neatly sewn. The native sewing skills, using needles made from fish bone or animal bone, are particularly in evidence in wrappings of mummies that have survived.
The most cumbersome item that the natives had, the nearest to anything like a machine, was the quern, comprising two stones that formed a rotary mill for grinding grain to make gofio. Although this implement demonstrated their know-ledge of circular motion, the natives did not know of the wheel. Their round pottery, as I wrote earlier, was made by hand without a potter’s wheel, but in any case wheeled vehicles would have very limited use and a short life on an island without roads and with very rough rocky terrain.
In general the Guanches were typical ‘primitive’ people, in that they took and used only what they needed without polluting or scarring the landscape, unlike us, the ‘civilised’ people of today. (The debate starts here.)
Incidentally, there has been a comment about my articles on the Guanches that, although the articles are well intentioned, there are some mistakes. I realised when I started this subject that I’m in dangerous territory. I know little about recent academic investigations, of which there have been many. So I can only apologise and repeat the disclaimer I made somewhere along the line that all mistakes are my own. I hope that the gaffs aren’t too bad and that readers of these not-too-serious, lightweight but informative articles will be inspired to discover for themselves more of the facts about this intriguing race by reading more thoroughly researched books. And perhaps someone on Tenerife might publish an up-to-date, authoritative, yet popular book in English.