Canary Islands Ancient and pre-Hispanic times

Before the arrival of humans, the Canaries were inhabited by prehistoric animals; for example, the giant lizard (Gallotia goliath), the Tenerife and Gran Canaria giant rats, and giant prehistoric tortoises, Geochelone burchardi and Geochelone vulcanica.

Although the original settlement of what are now called the Canary Islands is not entirely clear, linguistic, genetic, and archaeological analyses indicate that indigenous peoples were living on the Canary Islands at least 2000 years ago but possibly one thousand years or more before, and that they shared a common origin with the Berbers on the nearby North African coast. Reaching the islands may have taken place using several small boats, landing on the easternmost islands Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. These groups came to be known collectively as the Guanches, although Guanches had been the name for only the indigenous inhabitants of Tenerife.

As José Farrujia describes, ‘The indigenous Canarians lived mainly in natural caves, usually near the coast, 300-500m above sea level. These caves were sometimes isolated but more commonly formed settlements, with burial caves nearby’. Archaeological work has uncovered a rich culture visible through artefacts of ceramics, human figures, fishing, hunting and farming tools, plant fibre clothing and vessels, as well as cave paintings. At Lomo de los Gatos on Gran Canaria, a site occupied from 1,600 years ago up until the 1960s, round stone houses, complex burial sites, and associated artefacts have been found. Across the islands are thousands of Libyco-Berber alphabet inscriptions scattered and they have been extensively documented by many linguists.

The social structure of indigenous Canarians encompassed ‘a system of matrilineal descent in most of the islands, in which inheritance was passed on via the female line. Social status and wealth were hereditary and determined the individual’s position in the social pyramid, which consisted of the king, the relatives of the king, the lower nobility, villeins, plebeians, and finally executioners, butchers, embalmers, and prisoners. Their religion was animist, centring on the sun and moon, as well as natural features such as mountains.

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