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The Guanches

The Guanches

The Guanches, former inhabitants of the canary island who were of African origin and who the Spaniards encountered during their conquest of the islands.

The name “Guanche” refers to the former inhabitants of the island of Tenerife who were of African origin (Berbers) and who the Spaniards encountered during their conquest of the island in the 15th Century (from 1402 until 1496).

Today, all pre-Hispanic inhabitants from the Canary Islands are identified as Guanches, although originally each island had its own demonym: the Bimbaches used to live in El Hierro, the Benahoaritas in La Palma, the Gomeritas in La Gomera, the Canarii in Gran Canaria, the Guanches in Tenerife and the Mahoreros in Fuerteventura and Lanzarote.

The first Norman conquerors to arrive on the islands under the Castilian crown used the term Guanche to refer to all indigenous Canary Islanders and the generalization has endured ever since.

The Guanches settled on the Canary Islands around the 5th Century, where they adapted to the unique environmental conditions and remained isolated for two thousand years. Owing to the volcanic origin of the archipelago and the absence of metal, they belonged to a Neolithic culture, which does not necessarily imply that they did not have an advanced social structure. The Guanches were comprised of two racial groups: the cromonanoides, who had wide faces, were strong and were shorter, and the mediterranoides, who had thin faces and were taller. Migration from the continent to the islands was probably owing to the desertification of the Sahara and the pressure of Phoenicians and Romans to settle in North Africa.

The Guanches took some animals with them including goats, sheep, pigs and dogs. The new animal’s presence on the islands led to significant alterations on the local ecosystems and provoked the extinction of some native species such as the giant lizard (which used to measure up to a meter long) and Tenerife’s giant mouse. In fact, the presence of the common mouse, which accompanied the emigrants, supposedly led to the disappearance of some plant species, as these small rodents love to eat plant seeds.

Guanche society was patriarchal and, in the case of the island of Tenerife (the most studied of them all), power was in the hands of a mencey, (king) who, according to documents of the Spanish conquistadors, governed together with a caste system comprising of nobles, soldiers and commoners. However, it is equally possible that the Spanish chroniclers took the social structure to which they were accustomed with them and applied it to the structures already existing on the islands.

The guanches principally lived from shepherding although they also devoted themselves to agriculture (especially the production of cereal which they used to make gofio, a roasted, wholegrain cereal which still forms a part of the daily diet on the Canary Islands today), harvesting, shore fishing and shell fishing. A curious fact about the guanche culture is that, unlike other island cultures like the New Zealand Maori or those of the isolated oceanic islands of the south Pacific, there are no remains of boats or other objects that suggest any knowledge of navigation. Lack of navigation lead to great separation and isolation among the inhabitants of this chain of islands, along with clear differences in the cultural and social evolution on each of the islands.

As for the spirituality of the guanches, we know that their most important festival was el Beñesmer, a harvest festival, in which they gave thanks to the goddess Chaxiraxi, probably the main deity of their religion, and Achamán the sky god, protector and a benign deity who was an ally of Magec (the sun god). The evil side was ruled by Guayota, the demon who lived in the depths of Echeide (a hell located inside Mount Teide’s peak), in the company of the Guacanchas, a type of minor demon.

The mummification techniques used by the guanches, which were reminiscent of those performed by the Egyptians, such as the conservation of the entrails of an important deceased person in specific containers, is an example of the cultural development of this people (or peoples as we discovered at the beginning) who were limited by the roughness and simplicity of their natural surroundings and a shortage of resources.

El Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre (Museum of Nature and Man), in Santa Cruz in Tenerife, el Museo Arqueológico (Archeological Museum) in Puerto de la Cruz, El Museo Canario (Museum of the Canary Islands) in Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, la Cueva Pintada (The Painted Cave) in Gáldar and countless more places exemplify the interest which this enigmatic culture is producing in those who enjoy delving deeper into the history and culture of the Canary Islands.