May 07

‘Bite size’ Histories of Lanzarote Chapter 3: Those who came before

‘Bite Size’ Histories of Lanzarote

         Chapter 3: ‘Those who came before.’


La Graciosa ,the small island off the north of Lanzarote

La Graciosa, the small island off the north of Lanzarote

History is normally written by the ‘victors,’ and in praise of conquerors. Understandable, but it does sometimes leave a bit of a gap in the recorded information on the ‘losers’.

The descendants of the pre-Hispanic settlers of the Canaries, known as the Guanches, are still here and reminders of their language, art and culture are all around us. Specifically, ‘Guanche’ is the name for those of Tenerife. Although of common origin they had different names on each island, on Lanzarote the ‘Majos.’ (Their descendants seem to prefer to be known as ‘Conejeros.’)

As they were not navigators, according to Spanish chroniclers, they didn’t meet up much, trade or perhaps even really know the others were there, except in the vaguest terms.
This leads to an interesting question or two. If they were not sailors how did they get here in the first place, and where did they come from? The second part is easier to answer than the first.
There have been lots of theories about their origins including Greek, Viking, Roman, Egyptian and even the ‘survivors’ of the lost city of Atlantis! Unfortunately, for the romantics among us, the most likely theory is that they simply came from the nearest landmass, North Africa.

Studies of human remains of the Cro-Magnon type, found in Dordogne in France in 1868, and later similar remains found in North Africa (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) suggest that the Cro-Magnon types of North Africa were descended from the French Cro-Magnons. Or, they were two closely matched peoples. Their burial customs support the idea of a connection.
Language, customs, food and features of the Berbers support the theory that the Guanches came from the area of Barbary and ancient Libya.

How they got here? Presumably brought by wind and sea currents on fairly simple crafts. But, whilst the archaeologists and historians are good at who, what, where and how, the most fascinating question remains – why?
Were they escaping hardship or oppression? Had even earlier travellers brought tales of islands within reach? Is it just a facet of human nature that in every generation of every nation there are always a few who cannot resist the lure of the wanderlust; who simply must go, seek, explore and move around the earth?
Why, and by whatever means, they came; and in sufficient numbers to populate all of the larger islands, and apart from the pirate raids, life doesn’t seem to have been too bad.
The islanders had well-established social structures, legal systems and religious beliefs and practices. Populations were small because of the arid climate. Water and food were scarce but the people were industrious and resourceful. What’s that saying? ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’
They used goats horns for digging the earth, made pottery, wooden bowls, mills, combs, leather goods and bags made of rushes.

Tabaiba plants growing wild in thw baranco

Tabaiba plants growing wild in the barranco

They stored water in maretas, and they had discovered that the soil was more fertile, and held the moisture better when mixed with sand. Also they had a system of water extraction, digging into the barrancos (ravines) to find the unevaporated water trapped under the sand. (A system also practised in the African desert.)
They grew vegetables, kept goats and sheep, for meat, and for milk and cheese.
They grew beans, barley and wheat and made flour. They ate fish, seafood, rabbits, and dates and figs.
Herdsmen used long poles for vaulting over ravines, and they had festivals and sports, including singing and dancing and feats of strength and courage.

Each island had one or more ‘kings,’ with different titles, for example: ‘Mencey,’ in Tenerife, ‘Guanarteme,’ in Gran Canaria (where the High Priest was called the ‘Faycan.’) All names you can find around you today, though they might be over a business or bar!

Many local businesses and bars bear Guanche names

Many local businesses and bars bear Guanche names

The legal systems and punishments varied from island to island. For example: In El Hierro a robber had his eye put out. A second offence resulted in the loss of the other eye! In Gran Canaria murderers were put to death and robbers were imprisoned. In Tenerife punishments were severe but there was no death penalty. But in La Palma, theft was not punished; it was considered an art form!

The language throughout the islands was from a common origin/language group but different dialects developed. Similarly cave and rock inscriptions varied, and symbols on seals or amulets which have been discovered but whose definite use is not known; typically spiral shapes on La Palma and Lanzarote, circles with crosses in the centre, among others, on El Hierro and Gran Canaria, (where rocks were also painted.)

They followed a lunar calendar and held ceremonies to propitiate the rain and ensure the fertility of the crops. But, according to Abreu Galindo, a 17th Century historian, they believed in a supreme-being, known as ‘Aborac’ or ‘Acoran.’ They had priests and priestesses and places of worship. The dead, were embalmed; mummies exist in The Canary Museum in Las Palmas and The Archaeological Museum in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
The consent of the partners was all that was considered necessary for a couple to be ‘married.’ The terracotta figures that we see, and which sometimes raise a titter, had a serious purpose. A chap with a partnership on his mind was not expected to produce a diamond and go down on one knee. He offered to the lady of his choice a figure, with exaggerated genitalia, not the idle boast of an adolescent young man, as you might first think, but as a token of his feelings and the level of desire he was experiencing towards her. If she reciprocated his feeling she would give him a female figure in return. (Presumably these sat in pride of place on the equivalent of the mantelpiece.)

'Marriage figures'

‘Marriage figures’


A marriage could be ended by either partner, but the children of separated parents were considered illegitimate. Descent was through the female line and some historians say that polyandry was practised, one woman could have three husbands who rotated duties in and outside the home!

They lived in caves and ‘casas excavadas’ (underground homes) and later, or where there were no caves, in huts and houses built of rock.
They were industrious, inventive, described by chroniclers as ‘softly spoken and courteous’ and they were a courageous people, especially in defence of their homes.
But, they had cutting stones and javelins, no match for Spanish steel.

See Part 1 here

See part 4 here

Written by Sue Almond.

Photographs by Sue Almond

Category: Lanzarote,Journalism.Tags: Articles, Story telling, reporting


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    • Harry Dunn on May 8, 2014 at 12:38 pm
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    Another fascinating bite size chunk of Canarian history so well written.
    I try to picture the goat herdsmen using long poles for vaulting over ravines and the terracotta figures being swapped by potential partners! It wasn’t all pillage then.
    Thank you Sue for another great little ‘bite’ of history.

  1. Thank you Harry for your interest and comments. Sue

    • Ray Targett on May 8, 2014 at 1:45 pm
    • Reply

    My wife, Pauline, has developed , what I consider to be an unhealthy interest, in the exchange of the courtship statuettes, referred to in your article, in particular the male. She says I never did anything like that for her in our day. In hindsight I could have saved a small fortune on a wedding ring, I told her. She suggests there was now trade description legislation to protect the unwary and maybe the purchase of the ring was a more suitable option! What’s a chap to do? Haha

    • Ray Targett on May 8, 2014 at 9:19 pm
    • Reply

    Nearly forgot sorry, an interesting read Sue, thank you!

  2. Your comments are always such fun Ray. Thanks (and the answer to your question is ‘Whatever Pauline says!)

  3. I have read so many articles about the blogger lovers except this article is actually a pleasant article, keep it up.

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    1. Thank you for your comments. I am glad you enjoyed the post. Have you read parts three and four which bring the story of the island up to the present day? Sue

  4. Thank you for your very positive comments. Much appreciated. Sue

  1. […] FIND PART THREE here […]

  2. […] of stylised statuettes representing the Guanche kings and queens, princess and princesses of the pre-Hispanic era, when the island was called […]

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