Cenobio de Valeron: 350 Small Caves Create Confusion in the Canary Islands
The strange appearance of the cavities that comprise the immense Cenobio de Valeron archaeological site in the Canary Islands caused confusion for Spanish colonizers and early scholars. They misunderstood the odd-looking site on Gran Canaria for a pre-Hispanic monastery. And though the true purpose of Cenobio de Valeron is arguably more worldly than spiritual, even today people are still amazed by the unique appearance and history behind the cavities hewn out of volcanic rock by the hands of the island’s indigenous people
Early Attempts to Explain Cenobio de Valeron
350 spaces had been cut into volcanic rock high up above a valley on the island now known as Gran Canaria before the Romans connected with the indigenous people. Those cavities were still being used when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 15th century. But the outsiders didn’t know what the space had been used for.
The Spanish wrote that towers framed the caves and they followed the belief that the chambers at the site had been used by the indigenous people as convent rooms, where young noble women lived alongside celibate priestesses, keeping their virginity intact until they were married. The term “cenobio” means monastery. And though the real purpose as a communal granary would be discovered later in history, the monastery idea stuck around for a few centuries.
The large rocky outcrop into which the caves and cavities were dug out. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
The earliest reference to the Cenobio de Valeron archaeological site comes from an 18th century text written by the historian Pedro Agustin del Castillo, who describes his visit and shows the monastery belief was still alive:
“Once I was in the Guia district, in a place known as La Dehesa, and the two prominent local gentlemen who accompanied me asked if I would like to see an ancient monastery situation high above the Valeron valley. Two horsemen lead me to the place and we made the perilous ascent. I must confess I was astounded to see the structure carved out of the rock face using sedimentary axes or picks made from flint stones attached to sticks, as metal implements were unknown at the time. A great arch was cut into the mountainside which lead into a long corridor with many small chambers equally place on either side. Some were on top of others and each had a window. There were two towers on either side of the entrance which could be sealed from the inside, with windows overlooking the deep valley below.”
“The ancient chronicles speak about the existence of vestal virgins who lived in a convent in vast caverns. I was shown one such place, situated high on a hillside. Tired and perspiring, I took a photograph of the interior. This consisted of a multitude of superimposed niches cut into the rock. Some were small and other larger ones would not have accommodated an adult body. Unfortunately, ignorant treasure seekers have caused considerable destruction.”
“Situated high on the slopes of the Valeron valley, in Gran Canaria, a large portico leads into a vast complex with small chambers cut into the rock on both sides. Pedro del Castillo claims that each chamber has a window overlooking the valley and that there are two towers with inner steps at the front of the cave. However, when we visited the site in 1827, in the company of our sadly missed friend P.B. Webb, we saw no sign of others.”
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The caves at Cenobio de Valeron. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Shifting from Religion to Economy
But by the 20th century historians had discredited the idea that Cenobio de Valeron was a monastery or convent. When the size of the cavities and the nature of the features of the site were thoroughly examined and compared to similar locations in Gran Canaria and northern Africa, it was decided that it was a huge ancient Canarian communal grain store. When all the silos, rooms, caves, and cavities are added up there are more than 350 storage spaces available at Cenobio de Valeron. It was a significant feat to hew the rock and form the grain store high up on the valley wall, where it was hidden away and practically inaccessible before the road and entrance was built.
But the location offered good defense against raids by neighboring villages and pirate attacks – something extremely important for the local people as a food store such as this was a prime target and agriculture was the backbone of their economy, with grain being the most important foodstuff in their diet. Keeping their barley, and to a lesser extent wheat, in the silos at a communal location kept the grains safe from looting and also made it easier for the high priest to redistribute to food in times of drought, plague, or famine.
The cavities at Cenobio de Valeron used for storing grain. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Historians believe that each family had to give some grain as a tribute or tax and some scholars have suggested the contribution was recognized with a seal stamped onto the wet mortar used to seal the door covering the cavity their grain had been placed in. However, this theory, based on comparison with North African grain stores, has never been archaeologically validated, and would seem to contradict the idea that the grain was an offering rather than a personal possession.
How Did the Ancient Canary Islanders Store Their Grain and Where Did it Grow?
Storage spaces occupy all the surface area available on walls and the floor of Cenobio de Valeron and its believed that apart from grain, other products, such as dried figs, may also have been kept in the caves, as well as pottery and tools such as grind stones and pestles and mortars, which were used to make flour.
Exactly how the grain was stored is unknown. In most cases it seems cereals were simply put straight into the silos, although remains of pottery and baskets could indicate these recipients were also used. The arch of the mountain, measuring 30 meters (98.43 ft.) wide and 25 meters (82.02 ft.) high, provided good natural shelter and the temperature and humidity helped make this a good location for grain storage.
The grains probably came from the Vega de Guia-Galdar, one of the most fertile regions on the island, having both good soils and a favorable climate. They could also have been produced along the coastal plain at the foot of these hills where settlements of stone houses existed.
The grain silos at Cenobio de Valeron. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
How Were the Grain Silos Built at Cenobio de Valeron?
To build the grain silos, ancient Canarians cut into the volcanic rock using stone and wooden tools, the only materials available to them. The inner walls were smoothed and rounded to make emptying and filling the grain easier. Cracks and jagged edges were also removed to avoid losing grain.
Many of the silos also have an entrance accessing a circular chamber with independent stores which appear to have been closed. Grooves cut around the entrance probably held doors or lids. Those doors were sealed with an ash mortar to prevent insects getting in. And the mortar, which can still be seen in several silos, was also used to fill any cracks and holes. Steps were cut into the rock to access the different levels. Wooden scaffolds and ladders were probably used too.
The grain silos at Cenobio de Valeron. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos
Cenobio de Valeron’s Other Archaeological Features
Apart from the many silos at Cenobio de Valeron, there are three caves, which, because of their shape and size, would not have been suitable for storing grain. They are similar to dwelling caves found at other sites on the island and were probably occupied by watchmen. Idols, paintings, and pottery have been found in the dwelling caves.
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Several dwelling caves are also found close to the Cenobio de Valeron, La Presa caves and those within the site itself. But the settlement most closely linked to the site is the stone house village on the coast of San Felipe, previously known as Layraga.
Besides the dwelling caves, several funeral caves have also been discovered in the valley near Cenobio de Valeron. These include the Hormiguero, Morro, Lapa Morros de La Lapa and Cuesta de Silva caves. They are all smallish natural caves closed and partially hidden by dry stone walls. Bodies were found with remains of the reed matting in which they were wrapped, but there were no grave goods recovered.
Another unusual archaeological feature, known as the Tagoror del Gallego, is found at the top of the hill where Cenobio de Valeron is located. It offers a panoramic view of the northwest of the island and is in line with the La Atalaya or Galdar hill, where other archaeological features and remains of unknown use have been found.
Top Image: Cenobio de Valeron, Gran Canaria Source: Tamara Kulikova / Adobe Stock