The guanches, the aboriginal people that lived in
the Canary Islands until the Castilian Conquest


you sure had already heard these two words somewhere: the guanches. They are a part of the canary culture, and it is usual that people relate this concept to this archipelago. But, as always, knowing more than what is general knowledge is more complicated. And this is why this blog exists: to study in deep all of the different aspects of the canary culture, and specifically what is related to the island of Tenerife. In this text, we will make a general approach to the concept of the guanches. We will not get too deep in any of its aspects; this is just a general view of this ancient folk. But in future posts, we will do so. Now it is time to start this initial journey through canary History.

The aboriginal people that lived in the island of Tenerife are called the guanches. They did so until it was conquered by the Castilian Crown, in the year 1496. And we say the island of Tenerife, not the whole archipelago. In the past and nowadays, the concept “guanche” has been used to define the aboriginal people of the seven islands, but this is, in fact, a mistake.

the guanches canary conquest

This painting shows the evangelization that took
place in the Canary Islands after the conquest


In fact, this word was used by the ancient inhabitants of Tenerife to call themselves. It comes from the Berber language, and its meaning is something like “the man who is from Ashenshen”. This last word, precisely, is the way they called the island of Tenerife. So, this folk are related to the Berbers, which is an ethnic group that belongs to the North of Africa. The guanches are believed to come from there, and the specialists calculate that they did so between the V century BC and the beginning of the Christian era.

They lived in patriarchal communities, in which there were social stratification according to individual wealth. In this case, it was measured by the livestock every family had. The guanches lived in a totally hierarchical society, where the leader was some kind of king, called “mencey”.

the guanches graphic representation

Hypothetical appearance that the guanches might have had


The way of life these communities had is equivalent to The Stone Age, but, in any case, this classification has been rejected for being indefinite. The guanches were characterized by the contrast between their culture and their technological aspects. They came from the North of Africa, a place where there has always been a culture mixture. As a result, their cultural heritage was very rich. On the other side, we have their limited use of complex tools. This was due to the lack of metals in the islands. They were only able to use bones and rocks, the most primitive materials of the technological development.

the guanches guatimac idol
A little worswhip figure, called “idolillo de Guatimac”

As any primitive folk, the guanches also had religious beliefs. This case is peculiar. They all shared the same mythology, with the same values and beliefs. But, at the same time, every island had their own gods, which were different from the rest of the islands. So, they did not have common gods, but, because of their common mythology, these gods were very similar. This peculiar situacion was probably due to the isolation provoked by the fact of living in different islands.

Still many doubts remain!

How did they come to the Canary Islands? Is it true that they di not know how to sail? What did they eat? Was the mummification a usual practice among them? In future posts, we will resolve these and many other doubts regarding this not very well known culture, which was the first one who lived in the Canary Islands. This has been the first approach, but there will be more!

This text has been written using the Wikipedia post Guanche (Tenerife) as a reference.


Featured image: José Mesa (link to the license)
Images 1 and 3: Wikipedia
Image 2: Gran Enciclopedia Virtual de las Islas Canarias (CEVIC)