I couldn’t visit Tenerife without learning about the first people to inhabit the island before the Spanish settled there. Since the Pyramids of Guimar are currently closed due to Covid-19, the next best place to learn about the history of Guanches is the Museum of Nature and Archaeology. This museum is extensive and takes a couple of hours to walk around. At the entrance of the museum are the ticket office (€5 non-resident) and a small gift shop. The staff were approachable and showed me how to use the online audio tour in English. The Audio guide, that I opened on my mobile, was basic, so I would highly recommend purchasing the book ‘The Guanches, survivors and their descendants’ as this book gave me all the information I needed to follow along with the archaeology exhibition.
Who are The Guanches?
There were two races of Guanches; Cro-Magnon and Mediterranean, and unlike common belief, they lived across the Canary Islands, not just Tenerife. However, since they had no forms of communication overseas, they had to be inventive and were very intelligent to survive and adapt to their environment. This is a brief overview of what I have learned about the Guanches.
They liked to live in the caves as little construction was required. Where there were no caves, the homes they built for themselves were usually like huts, made with straw or leather roofs and stone. They made beds from dried grass and blankets from animal skin.
The diet of the Guanches was simple and wholesome. Barley, legumes, berries, local fruit, meat, cheese, and (wheat) porridge were often on the menu. They also ate gofio (Canarian flour made from roasted grains) in various dishes. This was believed to give them energy for the physical demands of daily life. They weren’t known to drink wine, but they did have a drink made from molasses that they believed had magical properties.
Crafts and Activities
The Guanches were excellent potters. Throughout the museum are many decorative items of pottery. The garments they made were well made, considering they were using fish bones for needles! They were made from goat skins that would be good to keep them warm on cold nights (even Tenerife gets cold nights). They also used art to communicate this was shown by the carvings that were found inside the caves and on rocks from the Guanches.
Weapons and Tools
Being mainly peaceful people, the weapons seen in the museum are mostly for hunting for food and defence. I could see from the collection that the Guanches were resourceful people. Knives were made from a hard stone called obsidian (formed from cooled lava). Spears were carved from wood and sharp stones (Tabonas) were used in conflict.
The Guanches had high morals for their time, preferring a quiet life upholding their religious beliefs. They didn’t have a place of worship like we see today, but they made fertility Idols out of stone and clay to worship and ask for good health and many offspring.
Guanche people had elaborate ways of burying the dead such as preservation using lard, rock dust, and various herbs and wrapping the corpse in fine leather and fur. They dried out bodies in the sun, then they were buried in caves. It is believed the more layers that covered the corpse, the more respected the person was in society.
So, what did I take away from this museum? The Guanches are the ancient civilisation in the Canary Islands. They made tools out of stone, weapons out of bones, and clothing out of leather and fur. I assumed, being ancient civilians, their lifestyle would be basic, but, interestingly, the Guanches knew many crafts and were more emotionally mature than I had realised. The museum’s collection was large, but as they said in the audio guide, most of the remains of Guanche civilisation are still owned by people with private collections. There’s much more to I could write about what I learned from the museum but cleverly I was still left wanting to learn more. Hopefully, with time further private collections will be donated to the museum, because this definitely is an intriguing part of Canarian history.
Information was sourced from the ‘Museum of Nature and Archaeology, Santa Cruz’ and also from the book ‘The Guanches, Survivors and their Descendants, by Jose Luis Concepcion- 22nd edition’. Photo of Guanche homes taken from https://clubcanary.com/en/guanches-in-tenerife.
Written by Charlotte Taylor