Prehistory and history of the Canary Islands
Updated: Aug 26, 2019
"Some people think that beyond the islands of Mauretania lie the Isles of Bliss (Canaries), and also some others of which Sebosus before mentioned gives not only the number but also the distances, reporting that Junonia (La Palma) is 750 miles from Gades (Cádiz), and that Pluvialia (El Hierro) and Capraria (La Gomera) are the same distance west from Junonia; that in Pluvialia there is no water except what is supplied by rain; that the Isles of Bliss are 250 miles WNW from these, to the left hand of Mauretania (Morocco), and that one is called Invallis (Tenerife?) from its undulating surface and the other Planasia (Gran Canaria?) from its conformation, Invallis measuring 300 miles round; and that on it trees grow to a height of 140 ft. About the Isles of Bliss Juba has ascertained the following facts; they lie in a southwesterly direction, at a distance of 625 miles sail from the Purple Islands, provided that a course be laid north of due west for 250 miles, and then east for 375 miles; that the first island reached is called Ombrios (El Hierro), and there are no traces of buildings upon it, but it has a pool surrounded by mountains, and trees resembling the giant fennel, from which water is extracted, the black ones giving a bitter fluid and those of brighther colour a juice that is agreeable to drink; that the second island is called Junonia, and that there is a small temple on it built of only a single stone; and that in its neighbourhood there is a smaller island of the same name, and then Capraria, which swarms with large lizards; and that in view from these islands is Ninguaria (Tenerife?), so named from its perpetual snow, and wrapped in cloud; and next to it one named Canaria (Gran Canaria), from its multitude of dogs of a huge size (two of these were brought back for Juba). He said that in this island there are traces of buildings; that while they all have an abundant supply of fruit and of birds of every kind, Canaria also abounds in palm-groves bearing dates and in conifers; that in addition to this there is a large supply of honey, and also papryus grows in the rivers, and sheat-fish; and that these islands are plagued with the rotting carcasses of monstrous creatures that are constantly being cast ashore by the sea."
Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79), Natural History (Book 6, paragraph 37)
The Canary Islands form Macaronesia with the Azores, Madeira, Savage Islands and Cape Verde, and is the largest archipelago of the region. Furthermore, they were the only ones that were inhabited since classical antiquity, when they were known as the Isles of Bliss.
The Canary Islands were frequented by Phoenician ships. In 435 BC, the Carthaginians, under the command of Hanno the Navigator, explored the western coast of Africa as far south as southern Morocco or perhaps even Gabon, and probably made stops in the Canary Islands, which were by then already identified by some as the semi-legendary μακάρων νῆσοι (makárōn nêsoi) or "Isles of Bliss".
However, the discovery of the islands for the western world is attributed to King Juba II (Berber: ⵢⵓⴱⴰ, Yuba), the Berber king of Numidia during a brief period from 29 until 27 BC, when the kingdom was annexed to the newly formed Roman Empire, and later again of Mauretania as a vassal to Rome from 25 BC to 23 AD. Juba established Mauretania as an ally of Rome and he would become one of the most loyal client kings that served Rome. According to Pliny the Younger, Juba II sent an expedition to the Canary Islands. No natives were encountered, several buildings were the only traces of inhabitants. Juba II had given the islands that name because he found particularly ferocious dogs (canarius –from canis– meaning "of the dogs" in Latin) on the island, which could've either been seals, then called canēs marīnī, or the dog-like demons worshiped on most of the islands by the aboriginals.
The builders of the ruins that were found in Juba's expedition were likely the aboriginal Berbers of the islands, who were present on the archipelago at least since 600 BC, as attested by datations from Cueva de los Guanches in Tenerife. The circumstances in which the arrival took place are currently uknown, although it could've been motivated by the expansion of other civilizations in their homeland Tamazgha (Maghreb), like the Phoenicians or Carthaginians. Perhaps they were a rebellious tribe that stood against those expansions, or they might even have been transferred to the islands to set up a supply base outside the Mediterranean. According to one theory, the islands were originally settled by the Canarii tribe of Berbers from the Atlas Mountains in what is now Morocco. Interestingly, an aboriginal legend said that they were descended from royalty from a faraway place. The possibility that these peoples arrived by their own means can't be discarted. Despite that navigation was apparently unknown to them at the time of the Castilian conquest in the 15th century, the aboriginals from Gran Canaria built boats to fish or to raid and pillage neighboring islands. They carved boats out of dragon trees, and added a stone ballast to the hold of the boat to provide stability.
Either way, the aboriginals of the Canary Islands inhabited the archipelago for over 2000 years, adapting to each and every one of its habitats, differentiating into 7 distinct cultures, one on each island, with their own religion and social, political and economical structures. Both linguistic and genetic evidences point out they were Berber in origin.
The archipelago consists of seven large and several smaller islands, all of which are volcanic in origin. They lie in the path of the north-east trade winds that carry moisture. The winds create distinct microclimates on the taller and newer islands of the West as a result, and their windward side is heavily covered in pine tree forests and laurisilva. In the East however, the lower, older and eroded islands no longer reach the moisture carried by the winds and are effectively desert.
The variety of environments the Berbers encountered in the Canary Islands on their arrival. © Carlos Vermeersch
Before the arrival of the Norman conquerors in 1402, the island was divided into numerous independent territories ruled by tribal chiefs. The order between the cantons, that tended to wage war on eachother for pasture, was maintained by a woman named Atidamana, who was respected by the population and assumed the role of judge in the conflicts and high priestess. However, some chiefs did not want to obey Atidamana's decisions, and argued that they shouldn't be subdued by a woman. Therefore, Atidamana married a warrior chief from Gáldar named Gumidafe, and together waged war on the rest of the chiefs until finally achieving complete control over the island and unifying the government, becoming guanartemes (kings).
Atidamana's and Gumidafe's grandson Taghoter Semidán divided the island in 1440, or earlier, between his two sons, and two guanartemates (kingdoms) were founded. Guanache Semidán inherited Gáldar and Bentanguaire Semidán inherited Telde. The frontier lied along the Barranco Guiniguada and the Barranco de Mogán or Barranco de Arquineguín. The sábor (council) however would remain in Gáldar and ended up triggering confrontations. Before the arrival of Castilian conquerors in 1478, the island is virtually unified once again due to the death of the two kings, and Tenesor Semidán is named king, who defended Bentejuí's right to rule in Telde.
Tinerfe the Great was the last mencey (king) of Achineche that ruled over the entire island. He lived in Adeje, like all his predecessors, in the late 14th century, approximately hundred years before the conquest of 1494 by Castile. Upon his death, his sons divided the islands into nine menceyates. Some historians believe the name of the island of Tenerife could derive from his name. Others state that the first author to call him Tinerfe, the poet Antonio de Viana, invented the name in 1604, and that his real name was Betzenuriia.
"For many years, the island and its people were subject to one king, who was from Adeje, whose name is lost from memory, and when he became of old age, each of his sons, that were nine, rised with their own piece of land, making themselves a kingdom."
Friar Alonso de Espinosa, Historia de Nuestra Señora de Candelaria
All the classical authors agree that there was one absolute king with residence in Adeje, upons whose death the island was divided between his nine sons: Acaymo, Atbitocazpe, Atguaxoña, Benecharo, Betzenuhya, Caconaimo, Chincanairo, Rumen y Tegueste. According to the historian and physician Juan Bethencourt Alfonso, Tinerfe was son of mencey Sunta, succeeding him as king of the island upon his death. However, his uncles attempted to overthrow him. Bethencourt states that Tinerfe "reformed the tactic of his father and was the founder of strategy, and Tenerife achieved great prosperity under his prolonged reign".
Benahoare was divided into 12 cantons at the time of the arrival of Castilian conquerors. As opposed to Achineche or Tamarán, it had no territorial unit above it. In fact, this system wasn't permanent and these units could be further divided into smaller ones, like the Gazmira band which is mentioned in the 16th century. The last canton to be conquered by Castile was located in the Caldera de Taburiente, called Aceró. The name is believed to mean "strong place", and indeed the caldera lends itself to a strong defense, measuring 10 km across and possessing steep walls towering up to 2000 m over the caldera floor.
Aktanasut, or as he was known by the Castilians, Tanausú, ruled the canton of Aceró. According to the historian Juan de Abreu Galindo, Atogmatoma, the ruler of Tijarafe, had a quarrel with Tanausú. Atogmatoma entered the caldera with 200 men through Adamancasis (now known as El Riachuelo, near La Cumbrecita), but Tanausú and his men managed to repel the attack. Later, Atogmatoma managed to enter the caldera with help from his relatives Bediesta and Temiaba, lords of Tegalguen and Tagaragre respectively. Tanausú then takes refuge in Mount Bejenado and asked for help to his cousins Ehenauca, Mayantigo, Azuquahe, Juguiro and Garehagua. Once all the warriors were rallied, Tanausú and his men descend towards the plains of Aridane, where the rest of the battle would take place. Finally, Atogmatoma was defeated.
In September 1492, captain Alonso Fernández de Lugo and his troups arrived to the coast of Tazacorte. The conquest was made by pacts with chiefs of several bands of the island, which were transfered to Gran Canaria, and the only rebellious cantons were Tigalate and Aceró. After two failed attempts to penetrate into the caldera, Alonso Fernández de Lugo sent Juan de La Palma, relative of Tanausú and ally of the Castilians, as a messenger to convince Tanausú to surrender, converse to Christianity and submit to the Catholic Kings promising to bring them presents. Tanausú sent as answer to the Castilians that they retreat from the Aceró, and that they meet on the next day outside his territory. Lugo agreed, but feared Tanausú and his men would retreat towards the rough grounds of the Caldera or ambush them. He awaited Tanausú and his men at the place that was agreed upon and then attacked the Benahoarites. After a bloody battle, the aboriginals were defeated and Tanausú was captured. Tanausú was taken away to be presented to Ferdinand and Isabella. In defiance, Tanausu is said to have refused to eat during the voyage to Spain, and he died without seeing land again.
Some of the giant lizards of the Canary Islands were lucky enough to survive in remote cliffs to our days, yet the La Palma giant lizard (Gallotia auaritae) was hunted by the Benahoarites for food into extinction — despite that the Spanish Herpetological Society argues it was found alive and classifies it as critically endangered. This is attested by burnt and cut bone fragments from several caves, including Cueva Chica and Roque de los Guerra, and are always found associated with pottery fragments of Phase I, which are dated to before Christ.
The aboriginals of the Canary Islands were an entirely oral society in which memory and oral communication perform all the functions of which reading and writing have in a literate society. However, the Berber settlers did have a writing system, used for brief messages.
"[...] They also have [...] a strange skill; even if a large herd of animals comes out of a pen together, they can count them without opening their mouths or pointing with their fingers. These people have amazing memories."
Abreu Galindo, 16th century
Writings from Garafía (La Palma), El Julán (El Hierro) or Balos (Gran Canaria) are identified as virtually identical to the Libyco-Berber script from North Africa brought by the first aboriginals. The script is related to Turdetanic script from Southwest Spain, and both descend from the Phoenician script that spread to the Western Mediterranean. Libyco-Berber gradually disappeared in the Canary Islands with the development of the distinct prehispanic cultures, but on the contrary evolved into Tifinagh in North Africa. In fact, the word tifinagh is thought to be a Berberised feminine plural cognate of Punic, through the Berber feminine prefix ti- and Latin Punicus; thus tifinagh could possibly mean "the Phoenician [letters]" or "the Punic [letters]".
According to recent studies, varieties of Libyco-Berber script of the Canary Islands generally have a greater affinity to each other than to continental ones, and when compared as a whole, it presented similitudes to those from Ghirza and Macousa, in modern-day Libya.
Approximately 6000 Libyco-Berber signs have been recovered throughout all of North Africa, and over 1000 Libyco-Berber signs in total have been found on the Canary Islands alone. However, they were much more common on some islands than others, with El Hierro more than half of them.
El Hierro (>500 signs): It includes various carvings from the island like La Caleta, Tejeleita, El Julán or Los Signos, as well as the well-known "chajasco" (funerary table) from Guarazoca.
Gran Canaria (232 signs): The horizontal inscription from Roque Bentaiga is of doubtful origin, since it is speculated it might be recent.
La Gomera (82 signs): It includes the writings from Las Toscas del Guirre. It is very likely that many more are to be found on this island.
Majo (>190 signs): It includes carvings from both Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, as these two islands probably shared the same culture. Here, another type of script developed, Latino-Canarian or Libyco-Canarian script, of Latin influence.
La Palma (>9 signs): The only inscriptions that have been found are the ones at Tajodeque, located at 2000 meters above sea level on the inner walls of the Caldera de Taburiente, and on the "Berber Idol" found at Buracas, the only case of Libyco-Berber inscriptions on terracotta on the Canary Islands.
Tenerife (>9 signs): The only inscriptions are located at Cambados and Cabuquero.
Examination of the inscriptions indicates a division of the Canary Islands into various episodes of Berber influence from different times, but geographically overlapping.
An Archaic Berber culture that during the 6th century BC spread as far East as Kabylia and to the West as far as the Canary Islands. In the Canary Islands the inscriptions include those of El Hierro (El Julan, La Caleta, etc.), Gran Canaria (Barranco de Balos, Arteara, etc.), La Palma (Cueva de Tajodeque) and one on La Gomera (Las Toscas del Guirre). Their main features are that they are pecked (and not carved or scratched); they prefer round variants (instead of angular ones); and they occur in a clearly definable context of linear and geometric depictions, such as circles, serpentines, labyrinths, nets, etc.
A Classical Berber culture rose during the time of the colonies of Augustus in Northwest Africa and king Juba II in Lanzarote, Fuerteventura and Gran Canaria. Classical Libyco-Berber inscriptions were also found on El Hierro (Barranco de Tejeleita, Barranco Cuervo, etc.) and one inscription on Tenerife (Cabuquero). In this era, a second wave of immigration to the Canary Islands took place. Berber people who were accustomed to Roman culture and script brought a second type of inscriptions to the islands which differ from the archaic ones in three points: they are carved or scratched, they prefer angular variants, and they occur often in a context of Latin cursive inscriptions.
A Romanized Berber culture on Lanzarote and Fuerteventura that developed another writing system, an alphabet, of Latin influence: Latino-Canarian or Libyco-Canarian script. This special type of cursive script was typical for border territories of the Roman Empire.
In North Africa on the other hand, at an unknown date, the appearance of Libyco-Berber changed dramatically. All phonemes except 6 were represented by completely new characters. This new alphabet is called Tifinagh. Evidence for Tifinagh is found on thousands of rock inscriptions across North Africa, but only a very few in Morocco. This restriction may be the reason for the fact that no Tifinagh inscriptions are found in the Canary Islands. The most obvious feature of this alphabet is the appearance of dotted signs in addition to linear ones. The only inscription from the Canary Islands which can be related to this stage of evolution of Libyco–Berber script is the one at the site of Llano de Zonzamas in Lanzarote, that surprisingly contains the following sequence (zɣrɣ):
Petroglyphs in the Canary Islands are made either with the incising method or through picking, but most petroglyphs are made using the picking technique. Afterwards other treatment techniques could've been used to polish and regularize the grooves, as is the case in the station of La Zarza (Garafía, La Palma), where some motifs were abraded to remove traces of picking. The picking technique was most likely made through inderect percussion, using a hammer and chisel, and only the simpler motifs could've been made with direct percussion. Before creating the final motif, the design was probably scratched on the stone.
Some scholars assert the tools used to create these engravings were most likely lithical instruments. No specific tool was used, any pointy stone harder than the supporting rock would suffice. This implicates the tool had to be constantly replaced as it would wear down quickly. Apparently, any stone could've been used to carve, as no artefacts were found at the sites. On the other hand, other scholars claim that due to the hardness of the volcanic rock these engravings were made on, metal had to be used. However, the islands lack metal deposits and this means the aboriginals never severed their ties with the continent.
Without a doubt, La Palma is the island that possesses the largest amount of petroglyphs in the Canary Islands, and are therefore its most notable archaeological remains. La Palma has a great amount of petroglyphs, most of which have complex geometric designs. The immense majority can be classified into four types: circular, spiriform, meandriform and linear petroglyphs. Sometimes, these designs can be combined into spectacular ensemble of great beauty, like panel nr. 19 of the site La Zarza, known as the "rosetón", and considered as the Sistine Chapel of the Canarian rock art. A special feature of these engravings is the fact that, even though sometimes the designs might be similar, they are all unique. The greatest concentration of carvings are located in Garafía and El Paso, and the third most important nucleus would be the ridge of the Caldera de Taburiente. Dispersed nuclei include those of Mazo, Fuencaliente, Santa Cruz de La Palma, Puntallana, Tijarafe and Puntagorda.
It is evident that these petroglyphs show striking similarities to the so-called “megalithic” signs, like the ones that cover the inside of the cairn of Gavrinis in France. Some scholars tried to search for these roots of an “Atlantic culture,” but there is no evidence of such a connection so far whatsoever. On the other hand, it is no secret that North African rock art provides thousands of examples which show an obvious similarity to Canarian ones. Curvilinear geometric designs have been found in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and incorporate vertical expanding concentric ovals flanked at either side by a design of half concentric ovals. They were pecked into large stepped sandstone blocks resting on sandstone bedrock.
The chronology of the Palman petroglyphs is problematic. In any case, three phases are established: the initial, intermediate and final phases. In the initial phase, the carvings are of great perfection and had an abrading finish in order to regularize and polish the grooves. The most complex engravings of a wide array of themes are included in this phase. The intermediate phase also possesses complex engravings, but the grooves are less regular and the abrading technique was abandoned, hence the percussion traces are still noticeable. The final phase includes a series of motifs that were made by people that had arrived during conquest, at the end of the 15th century. The representations are simpler and the themes are less varied. What does seem clear is that their rock art was brought by the earliest settlers in 500 BC from Northwest Africa. Perhaps, their initial lack of knowledge of the island's environments and its limited resources made them want to perform religious practices that were meant to promote rainfall or fertility, of which the petroglyphs might have been part of. This would explain the initial complexity and perfection of the petroglyphs. Over time, the indigenous population would adapt to the environment, and even though these practices weren't at all abandoned, they were less elaborate. The most widely accepted theories talk about a cult either to fertility and the goddess of springs and water, or to a solar cult. In point of fact, many stations are located near springs and water, but also on promontories, near caves or on pastures and routes.
Podomorphs are petroglyphs that, as their name indicates, resemble a foot or several foots. They're rectangular with sepparated strokes to represent the toes, although some carvings are oval or without any digitations. Strokes in the inside of the contour might be representing footwear. The largest concentration is located on Mount Tindaya, in Fuerteventura, with 312 carvings registered. Similar carvings have been found on other islands, like the Piedra del Majo in Lanzarote, and also in El Julán in El Hierro, Barranco de Balos in Gran Canaria and El Roque de Bento and El Roquito in Tenerife.
Representations of boats have been carved all over the Canary Islands, but in most cases they were dated to several years before the arrival of the Europeans to the archipelago, to the exception of a hippos, a Phoenician ship, carved in the site of El Calvario (Garafía, La Palma).
According to written sources of the 16th century, pottery was an office of women. Chemically, pure clay is a hydrated aluminum silicate. When combined with water, it creates a moldable mass. Contact with air and boiling produce a loss of mass and hardening of the material. However, pure clay is not ideal for pottery. Before combining it with water, it is mixed with other types of soil and degreasing substances to give it a greater consistency. The chosen soils are then mixed and milled. Later, it is cleaned by sifting, and organic substances are eliminated. Only then it is mixed with water and then the mix is allowed to set for several days. In order to substitute the pottery wheel, a technique called coil method, in which coils of clay are used to build bowls by placing a coil along the edge of a foot base. This technique is still widely used by the Berbers of North Africa. Patterns and decoration are drawn with beach stones and punches fashioned out of bone or wood.
Pliny the Elder recorded Juba II's discoveries in his Natural History, written in 77 AD. He specifically referred to the huge dogs on the island of Canaria (Gran Canaria). Some speculate the ferocious dogs that were encountered on Juba's expedition in the Canary Islands were in fact seals, then called canēs marīnī, as the islands were home to dense populations of monk seals, now critically endangered. This was probably what struck the ancient Romans the most who established contact with these islands by sea. However, the aboriginals worshiped dog-like demons in most of the islands, including Gran Canaria, La Palma, La Gomera and Tenerife –known as Tibicena, Iruene, Hirguan and Jucancha, respectively–, which seems to be too much of a coincidence. Furthermore, the aboriginals possibly mummified their dead along with dogs, as attested by findings at Llano de Maja in Las Cañadas del Teide.
As a matter of fact, in the Barranco de Santos and Las Cañadas del Teide in Tenerife, and the Barranco de Guayadeque in Gran Canaria, skulls of unknown dogs of a great size have been found, which means their mythology might have been based on reality. The Guanches, the aboriginal people of Tenerife, believed these demon dogs are the sons of the devil, Guayota, the evil dark god. According to their religion, one day Guayota abducted the god Magec, the sun, and took him inside the Teide volcano and plunged the world into darkness, until the sky god Achamán rescued him. During that long night, the tibicenas were born, appearing as if from nowhere. Fleeing from the harmful sun, they made the caves and the deepest ravines their home, digging deep into the mountains during the day, eager to flee from the light. They said that in the ravines, pain and death awaits, because the tibicenas lurked there during the night, burning the darkness with the fire of their eyes and filling the air with their howls.
The aboriginals made them offerings of food and honey, placing them in the crevices up high, where these evil spirits lived. Whenever something bad happened, or they appeared to someone of a high status, even bigger offerings were made, like goats and sheep.
Dr. Felipe Jorge Pais Pais, director of the Museo Arqueológico Benahoarita and the Archaeological Park of Belmaco, and chief of the Historical and Archaeological Heritage Section of the Cabildo of La Palma.
Dr. Domingo Acosta Felipe, archaeologist at the Museo Arqueológico Benahoarita
Museo Arqueológico Benahoarita (Cabildo de La Palma)