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An aerial view of Bentayga Rock, Gran Canaria Island.

Roque Bentayga, Gran Canaria: Vestiges of the Mysterious Guanche People

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Roque Bentayga is a rock formation located on Gran Canaria, an island of the Canary Islands. Many archaeological remains connected to the mysterious Guanche people are found on Roque Bentayga and in its surrounding mountains, revealing the ancient indigenous Canarians way of life. With it’s fascinating history and stunning vista, this site is one of the attractions on Gran Canaria; though it is not as well-known as another of the island’s rock formation, Roque Nublo.

The alluring Roque Bentayga. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

The alluring Roque Bentayga. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

The Canary Islands and Atlantis

Although the Canary Islands are located in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morocco, they are today politically a part of Spain. Some have speculated that the islands are the remains of the legendary sunken continent of Atlantis, while others believe that they are the tips of huge undersea volcanoes. According to the archaeological evidence, the earliest settlement dates to around 2000 BC, though the islands might have already been settled at an earlier point of time.

Roque Bentayga, Gran Canaria, seen from a distance. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

Roque Bentayga, Gran Canaria, seen from a distance. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

During the Classical period, the existence of the Canary Islands was known by the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans. Although expeditions were sent to explore the islands, it seems no efforts were made to colonize them.

After the fall of the Roman Empire , the Canary Islands appear to have been forgotten, as they were not mentioned in any known records for centuries. The Arabs are recorded to have landed on the island to trade in 999 AD, though it was only during the early 14th century that the islands re-entered European memory.  At that time, a Genoese captain by the name of Lanzarotto (or Lancelotto) Malocello stumbled upon one of the Canary Islands, and named it Lanzarote, in honor of himself.

The Guanches at Roque Bentayga

About a century passed before an effort to colonize the islands were made by the Europeans. In 1402, the Norman adventurer Jean de Béthencourt set off from La Rochelle to conquer the islands. It was perhaps during this time that Europe had its first contact with the indigenous inhabitants of the Canary Islands, who became known collectively as the Guanches , though this name was initially applied only to those inhabiting the island of Tenerife. In any case, at the time of the European conquests, the Guanche way of life is believed to have not changed for millennia.

Reconstruction of a Guanche settlement of Tenerife. (R. Liebau/CC BY SA 3.0)

Reconstruction of a Guanche settlement of Tenerife. (R. Liebau/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

The Guanches were forcibly assimilated into the society and culture of their Spanish conquerors, and lost their traditional way of life . Nevertheless, remnants of this way of life have been discovered by archaeologists and help to shed light on the way the Guanches lived prior to the coming of the Europeans.

Rock art, for instance, have been found on Roque Bentayga and in the surrounding mountains. At the base of the Roque Bentayga, for instance, there are two sections of rock art consisting of Libyco-Berber alphabets and geometric symbols. The alphabets suggest that the indigenous people of the Canary Islands are connected to the Berbers of North Africa. This is supported by similarities in burial practices, and place names.

Evidence of urban planning has also been found in the settlements of the Guanches, which suggests that the islanders were more sophisticated than commonly thought. On the southern face of Roque Bentayga, a settlement was founded by the Guanches.

A section near the top of Roque Bentayga that had been carved out by the Guanches. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

A section near the top of Roque Bentayga that had been carved out by the Guanches. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

The people of the settlement lived in artificial caves that were carved into the rock. In order to maximize the use of space, the caves were distributed over four levels. Steps were dug out of the rock to connect these levels and paved roads and platforms for the walls along the steps were made using the excavated rock. Further evidence of social planning is seen in the common granaries in the settlement, which were used for the storage of agricultural surplus.

Caves seen around the base of Roque Bentayga. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

Caves seen around the base of Roque Bentayga. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

Almogaren de Bentayga: Roque Bentayga as a Sacred Site

Another aspect of pre-colonial Guanche society that has been studied by archaeologists is the knowledge of astronomy attained by the islanders. This field of knowledge is closely related to their religious beliefs.

The indigenous inhabitants of the Canary Islands preferred mountains as the location of their sacred spaces. This was also the case for Roque Bentayga. On the eastern side of the rock promontory is the Almogaren de Bentayga, which was possibly used as a shrine. The term ‘almogaren’ refers to a shrine that has shallow basins and channels dug into the ground.

Almogaren de Bentayga, Bentayga Rock. (Tito Pullo/CC BY 4.0)

Almogaren de Bentayga, Bentayga Rock . (Tito Pullo/ CC BY 4.0 )

The Almogaren de Bentayga consists of a rectangular platform with two different levels, as well as a number of artificial caves, carved platforms, glyphs, and basins. Additionally, in the lower level of the platform, there is a central depression where the channels dug out in the base meet. Studies at the site suggest that the alignment of the sun with this central depression allowed the Guanches living on Gran Canaria to keep track on the equinox , which in turn allowed them to establish the annual agricultural cycle.

Top image: An aerial view of Bentayga Rock, Gran Canaria Island. Credit: Ioannis Syrigos

By Wu Mingren

References

Archaeological Institute of America, 1999. Bentayga.
Available at: https://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/canary/bentayga.html

Bramwell, A., 2016. Gran Canaria’s Other Rock: Sacred Roque Bentayga. Available at: https://www.hellocanaryislands.com/blog/lugares/gran-canarias-other-rock-sacred-roque-bentayga/

Esteban, C., Schlueter, R., Belmonte, J. A. & González, O., 1997. Pre-Hispanic Equinoctial Markers in Gran Canaria, Part II. Journal for the History of Astronomy, Archaeoastronomy Supplement, Volume 28, pp. 51-56.

Lonely Planet, 2019. Canary Islands: History. Available at: https://www.lonelyplanet.com/spain/canary-islands/background/history/a/nar/df848309-ce64-46a0-a0cb-c1dee6a784c8/355117

New World Encyclopedia, 2017. Canary Islands. Available at: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Canary_Islands

Rodriguez, V., 2017. Canary Islands. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Canary-Islands

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