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The Guanche People of Gran Canaria

The aim of this website is to impart to all our readers a little information about as many aspects of Gran Canaria as we possibly can. Many people know about the recent history of Gran Canaria and the tourist boom that it experienced since the start of the 1960's, after which many of the now famous hotels were built and tourist attractions such as Palmitos Park, were established.

Many of the visitors that come to Gran Canaria also know a bit about, the Spanish Conquest of the Canary Islands. We are not going to concern ourselves with the details of the conquest of the Canary Islands, however we are going to mention the invasion and following conquest of Gran Canaria and the behaviour of the Guanche or aborigine people of Gran Canaria during this time.

This page is concerned with Gran Canaria before the Spanish Conquest and the Guanche or Aborigine people that inhabited the island before the conquest.

These people are often called Guanche, however the term Guanche actually refers to the ancient aborigines that inhabited Tenerife, although in recent times the term has been applied more widely, (however incorrect) to mean and refer to the inhabitants of the Canary Islands, prior to and during the Spanish invasion and subsequent conquest of the islands.

All the information on this page has been obtained from reading (The Guanches, survivors and their descendants by Jose Luis Concepción).
br> The book written by Jose Luis Concepción, looks at the idea that the original aborigine, or Guanche people in fact still exist to this day, however we are not going to concentrate on this we are going to take from this publication facts about who the Guanche people were, how the Guanche people lived, the clothes the Guanche people wore and other relevant fact about these fascinating, ancient inhabitants of Gran Canaria. We should call the original inhabitants of Gran Canaria aborigines, but as most people call them Guanche we shall continue to adopt this term.

Background Information about the Guanche People.

It is known that, the Guanche people on each of the different islands did not integrate, neither communicate because they had, no knowledge of navigation. For this reason the Guanche people as a collective on each different island possessed it´s own characteristics and features. The Guanche people were generally a peaceful people who defended their land and liberty courageously whilst at the same time being a noble people that were compassionate and true to their word.

Social and Political Structure of the Guanche People

The Guanche people had a very complex heirarchy, and well defined social and political system. For example at the time of the conquest each of the canary islands was ruled by one or more kings or princes. The Guanche people also had a complicated polytheistic religion. Most of the council and justice decisions were made at the Tagoror (an example of which can be seen at Jardin Botánico). The differences between each group of Guanche people can be seen in the legal system that operated on each island.
For instance on the island of Fuerteventura, criminals were executed by having their heads crushed. On El Hierro, a robbers first offence was dealt with by the robber having an eye removed, and if he offended again his remaining eye would be put out as punishment. On the island of Tenerife the death penalty did not exist, thieves were dealt with severely and murderers had all their belongings seized and given to the victims family as a way of compensation and on Gran Canaria, robbers were imprisoned, and murderers were executed. The Guanche people also awarded titles of nobility according to a persons individual merits and upstanding character. If he passed scrutiny he was awarded the status of nobility and if not he had his hair cropped and remained a peasant for the rest of his life.

Work and General life of the Guanche People

Work for the Guanche people, was mainly herding and growing cereals. The women helped by sowing the barley, wheat and beans. The earth was prepared using goats horns, and the cultivated land was irrigated by putting to good use the running water that was available to the Guanche people at that time. The Guanche people were skilled in using clay and used it to make pottery of varying sizes, and were adept at decorating it. Samples of Guanche pottery can be seen at the museum Cueva Pintada at Gáldar.

Guanche Homes, Clothes and Jewellery

The Guanche people mainly lived in caves, and the position of the cave denoted their social standing. The higher up the cave was, the more important socially and richer were it´s inhabitants, with the nobles living near the top, and the king living in the very highest cave. Often each cave was home to more than one Guanche family. Furniture was sparse and carved or excavated from the cave walls. Guanche beds were made from dried grasses and they used to wrap themselves in animal skins for warmth. Many examples of these caves can be seen all over the island of Gran Canaria, and even today, some people still live in caves, although they are now supplied with modern amenities and far more comfortable. Guanche clothes were made from soft sheep or goat skins and in general were very well made. The Guanche people also wore skirts made from rushes or palm fronds which were well woven. These clothes were common to both the women and the men although the Guanche women were covered from the neck to the floor because it was considered indecent for the Guanche woman to expose either her breasts or feet. Jewellery worn by the Guanche people was necklaces made from sea shells, pebbles, bone and clay beads.

What the Guanche People Ate

The only animals raised by the Guanche people were sheep, pigs, dogs and goats. The Guanche used the gosts and sheep for their meat and milk, from which they made, lard and cheese and while some chroniclers have written that pigs were considered sacred the Guanche also ate pig meat. The Guanche used to make and eat Gofio which is still eaten today; gofio was nade by milling wheat, barley and beans and then roasted in a type of clay oven. The Guanche diet also included, fruit, molasses, dates, seafood, flour which was from fern roots and fish, which they caught in nets made from palm fronds or hooks made out of goat horn.

Guanche Tools

In addition to the usual pottery implements the Guanche home also contained, knives carved from obsidian, sewing needles made from fish bones, bodkins made of bone which were probable used to sew the skins together; bowls and combs made of wood; leather bags, used for carrying and pouches made from the stomachs of goat kids. The herdsmen would have a long wooden pole which they used to pole vault deep gullies and steep rocks. The Guanche people armed themselves with a wooden javelin, which had different names in each of the different islands; on Gran Canaria it was called a magado. The Guanche people also armed themselves with something called a tabona; a cutting stone. The tabona was also the first weapon that was used by the Guanche people in conflict.

Guanche Sports, Festivities, Songs and Dancing.

The Guanche people were a very sociable people and during each year, which was counted by lunar cycles, they held various celebrations. The main celebration during the Guanche year was called beñesmen. This was held just after the fruits and cereals were gathered in and is likely to have been the equivalent of modern day Harvest Festivals. The Guanche would gather together several times each year and during each assembling of the people the king would offer the other members of his society, meats, gofio, lard and milk. The Guanche commoners would give thanks with singing dancing and wrestling. It would seem that the giving of thanks differed slightly on each island. If it should happen that tribes were at war during a celebration it was customary to declare a truce for the duration of the festivities.

Gaunche Marriage

It is believed that all that was needed to constitute a marriage during Guanche times was an agreement of consent between two people. It is generally accepted that Guanche men did not marry more than one woman at a time. The Guanche marriages could be dissolved by either partner, however any children born of the previous marriage were then considered illegitimate and would not belong to a new union.

Guanche Religion

José Luis Concepción writes that according to Abreu Galindo and Father Espinosa, the primitive Guanche people believed in a supreme being and the supreme being various names. Among them (ABORAC) and (ACORAN). Other chroniclers have written that the Guanche people also believed in Hell and demons such as the guayota. Each different Guanche tribe had it´s own priests and places of worship. On the island of Gran Canaria their lived (Harimaguadas) which were a type of priestess whose sole role in life and society was that of prayer and instruction.

Guanche Burials and Embalming

In the Canary Islands as in Egypt and Peru, dead bodies were embalmed. Mummies have been discovered and have been preserved in the Canario Museum in Las Palmas, and the Archaeological museum which is located in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The Guanche people exacted a mummification process which lasted for 15 days, during which the body was treated with a liquid made from, melted animal lard, heather, rock dust, pine bark and herbs. This liquid was admimistered into the body via the mouth during the 15 days whilst it was drying out in the sun. After this it was wrapped in skins and placed inside a cave on a block of Tea wood and given the name (Xaxo). Other Guanche people though were simply buried in caves. In the north west of Gran Canaria the Guanche people buried their dead in tumulus.

Guanche Origins

Many theories have been put forward as to the true origins of the Guanche people that populated the Canary Islands at the time of the Spanish conquest, however since the discovery of Cro Magnon remains in the south of France in 1968, and subsequent discoveries in Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, things have become a little clearer. The system of burial would suggest that, the bodies discovered in the north west area of Africa were either descended from the French Cro Magnons or that they were indeed two very closely matched peoples. Adding to this the customs language, food and physical features of the Berbers it seems a natural conclusion that the Guanche people of the Canary Islands did indeed travel to the Canary Islands from Libya and the Barbary area of North Africa, especially because the Guanche language certainly had Libyan roots. It is not clear how the Guanche people actually arrived on the Canary Islands, but if you consider the natural sea currents between North Africa and the Canary Islands, it is easy to reach the conclusion that the original Guanche people arrived on the Canary Islands in some sort of basic sea going vessels. There are many parallels that exist between the ancient Guanche people of the Canary Islands and the Libyan-Berber people. In fact there are still today Berbers that continue to live lives similar to the lives the Guanche people led.