Pelicar - A Guanche king

Researchers Get Closer to Finding the Origins of the Enigmatic Guanches…and No, They are Not Atlanteans

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The Guanches are the white-skinned and fair-haired aboriginal people of the Canary Islands. With their location so near to North Africa, their origins have long presented a mystery for researchers. Finally, a genetic study has been able to link the Guanches to some of their neighbors.

There is a legend which says the Guanches are descended from Atlanteans who had survived the submerging of the site because they were on mountain peaks - which today we know as the Canary Islands. But a new study has provided clear evidence for a hypothesis supported by anthropologists for years – the Guanches are genetically linked to the Berbers of North Africa.


Guanches. ( Gran Enciclopedia Virtual de las Islas Canarias )

Steve Andrews wrote in a previous article for Ancient Origins that most of our current knowledge of the Guanches’ history comes from Spanish chroniclers, who explained,

“The Guanches were hunter-gatherer tribes who lived a lifestyle much like it is supposed that people lived in the Stone Age. They were known to have lived in caves and huts and to have had few tools with no metalwork because they lived on volcanic islands where there are no metal ores. They made pottery though and had knowledge of basic farming and foraging from the wild. They also practiced embalming and the mummification of their dead, as well as trepanation of the living. The mummies were left in caves but other Guanche corpses of a lower social standing were buried.”

Mummy of a Guanche individual known as “San Andrés” (Saint Andrew).

Mummy of a Guanche individual known as “San Andrés” (Saint Andrew). ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

As Sci News reports, his isn’t the only time genetics has come into play when looking for the origins of the Guanches. But previous studies have been less conclusive due to their focus on single genetic markers, such as mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes. The current study sequenced autosomal DNA from five archaeological Guanche individuals from Gran Canaria and Tenerife instead.

The remains were radiocarbon dated to the 7th-11th centuries AD and found mitochondrial lineages that are common in West Eurasia and/or North Africa. This is no surprise, as previous genetic studies have had similar findings. The more intriguing results come from three males corresponding to a haplogroup abundant in modern North African populations and especially common in Berber-speaking populations of North Africa.

Berber Family. Mother with a child. Taken in Atlas Mountains, Morocco 2013.

Berber Family. Mother with a child. Taken in Atlas Mountains, Morocco 2013. (Dmitri Markine/ CC BY 3.0 )

With their data in hand, the researchers conclude ,

“Our results show that the Guanches were genetically similar over time and that they display the greatest genetic affinity to extant Northwest Africans, strongly supporting the hypothesis of a Berber-like origin. We also estimate that the Guanches have contributed 16%–31% autosomal ancestry to modern Canary Islanders, here represented by two individuals from Gran Canaria.”

Yet it seems not all the Guanches shared the same genetic situation. One interesting individual was found to have a higher proportion of hunter-gatherer-like ancestry. This has led to the proposal of “low-level gene flow from a European source that predates the European conquest.” [Via Sci News]

Linus Girdland-Flink working in the ancient DNA laboratory. To avoid introducing contaminant DNA, ancient DNA researchers dress up in full-body coveralls and face masks.

Linus Girdland-Flink working in the ancient DNA laboratory. To avoid introducing contaminant DNA, ancient DNA researchers dress up in full-body coveralls and face masks. ( Karolyn Shindler )

Professor Anders Götherström, co-author and director of the ancient DNA laboratory at Stockholm University, explained these findings to

“Our analyses show that a small portion of the genetic ancestry of the Guanches was derived from populations most closely related to European Stone Age farmers. Interestingly, this type of genetic ancestry was introduced to Europe from Anatolia with migrating farmers during the Neolithic expansion around 7,000 years ago. Other North African populations have varying proportions of this ancestry but it is not yet fully understood how and when it spread across North Africa.”

Thus, you can see that no one can say for certain exactly when or how the Guanches arrived at the Canary Islands, or how often they had undocumented contact with outside populations. They apparently had no skill at navigation at sea – they didn’t even have any recognizable boats - when they were “first” encountered by outsiders in the 15th century. As the researchers admit in their article :


I'm curious what their legends said back when the Spanish first rediscovered them? Most legends have basis in reality, so that is a good start

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