The Canaries

The Canaries


Who were the Guanches?


When the Spaniards began colonising the Canary Islands in the 15th century, the islands were already occupied by a native people who became known as the Guanches.   But who were the Guanches?

The Canaries were already known – vaguely — in the classical world.  Mount Teide , the highest mountain on Tenerife, is said to be visible on a clear day from the coast of Africa, and thus the Canaries are claimed to have been visited by the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Carthaginians, but the fullest evidence comes from the Romans: according to Pliny the Elder, King Juba of Numidia explored the islands, found they were uninhabited, but also found the remains of a small stone temple.  The islands were visited by the classical world — a few scatters of pottery and amphorae have been found – but never permanently occupied.

GC Cave settlement DSC05739It is left to archaeology to reveal the history of the first proper occupation by the so-called Guanches.  These left behind a good scattering of occupation sites mostly in caves, but there were also many burial sites from which numerous sculls have been recovered.  These form an impressive display in the museum.

The skull room in the Gran Canaria museum, showing skulls of the GuanchesThe Skull Room at the Gran Canaria Museum. The best of the skulls collected in the late 19th century were brought together in this room, which forms a fine coup de theatre, a superb example of Victorian Grand Guignol.


GC Mummified burials DSC05790When the sculls were first collected in the late 19th century, it was a time when many Palaeolithic sites were being excavated in France, notably at Cro Magnon, and the Canarian sculls were thought to be similar and were called the Cro Magnon sculls. Of course they were not, and later study soon showed that the nearest analogies were with the Berber people who were, and are, the inhabitants of North Africa.

GC cave dwellingDSC05756Occupation sites have been discovered throughout the islands, mostly in caves




Guanche round house




There were also a number of settlements of roundhouses, and indeed some square houses at the later dates. There were also numerous burial sites where the bones were well preserved so that extensive collections of skulls were made in the 19th century.


Guanche pots



Some of the handmade pots that were found in the settlements.


Fertility goddess of the Guanche people



The highlight of the museum collection is this fine idol.

She is generally said to be a fertility goddess, but she has no breasts or tummy, but very elaborate arm muscles and thigh muscles.  So is she perhaps male?  Or even transgender perhaps?

Or have her breasts mysteriously emigrated to her upper arms?

Her provenance is unknown.  She was part of Dr Cil’s collection which he left to the museum.


Radiocarbon dating has begun to reveal the history of the Guanches.  The major site, or the best known site is the Painted Cave at Galdar which we visited and describe below, where an extensive village has been excavated outside the original Painted Cave which dates to between the 10th century and the Spanish conquest.  However there is a scattering of earlier dates from the 7th century – 10th century,  suggesting that there was an earlier occupation.


On to The Painted Cave at Galdar

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