Researchers Get Closer to Finding the Origins of the Enigmatic Guanches…and No, They are Not Atlanteans
The Guanches were 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 was able to link the Guanches to some of their neighbors, at least clearing up some of the questions regarding their familial ties.
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 we know today as the Canary Islands. But a 2017 study 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)
Who Were the Guanches?
“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.”
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Mummy of a Guanche individual known as “San Andrés” (Saint Andrew). (CC BY SA 3.0)
Because the Guanches were apparently not very good sailors, there was little contact between the people living on different islands and cultural differences arose between different communities. There was some contact with sailors who came to them, however, and the Romans were one group that enjoyed a trade partnership with the islanders.
Everything changed when the Spanish conquistadors arrived. Although the islanders put up a tough fight against the invaders, their nine kingdoms had all fallen to the Castilian Crown by 1496. Many of the Guanches who had survived the fighting were sent into slavery; the ones who remained on the islands had to culturally assimilate to the lifestyle and religion of the conquistadors.
What Can Genetics Tell Us About the Guanches?
The 2017 study wasn’t the first time genetics came into play when looking for the origins of the Guanches people. But previous studies were less conclusive due to their focus on single genetic markers, such as mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes. The 2017 study differed itself by sequencing autosomal DNA from five archaeological Guanche individuals from Gran Canaria and Tenerife.
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 had similar findings. The more intriguing results came from three males corresponding to a haplogroup abundant in modern North African populations and especially common in Berber-speaking populations of North Africa.
Previous research has also shown that the Guanche language stemmed from similar origins as the languages spoken by Berber populations in North Africa. Stone inscriptions created by the Guanches depict symbols that are similar to the African Tifinagh alphabet.
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 of the 2017 study concluded,
“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. (Karolyn Shindler)
Professor Anders Götherström, co-author and director of the ancient DNA laboratory at Stockholm University, explained the 2017 study’s findings to Phys.org:
“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.”
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More Mysteries of the Canary Islands’ First Settlers
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 the Spanish in the 15th century. As the researchers admitted in their 2017 paper :
“Though radiocarbon dates on archaeological remains such as charcoal, seeds, and domestic animal bones suggest that people have inhabited the islands since the 5th century BCE […] it remains unclear how many times, and by whom, the islands were first settled.”
Alonso Fernández de Lugo presenting the captured Guanche kings of Tenerife to Ferdinand and Isabella. (CC BY SA 3.0)
Nonetheless, the 2017 study has allowed several researchers to feel more confident about their belief in the genetic ties between the Guanches and the Berber population. The study can be found in the journal Current Biology .
Top Image: Pelicar - A Guanche king Source: cinetech