Extinct Ancient Societies Gaunches of the Canary Islands

About the Gaunches of the Canary Islands, history of the extinct society, how they were destroyed and the last of them.



Their Society: Inhabiting the Canary Islands, which lie off the coast of northwest Africa in the Atlantic Ocean, the Guanches were a tall, fair or red-haired race of people. It is believed that they were the descendants of Cro-Magnon men who migrated to the islands from southern France and the Iberian Peninsula in oceangoing canoes some 3,000 years ago. The Guanches' own oral history and mythology spoke of 60 men and their families who colonized the uninhabited Canary Islands in prehistory after being driven from Europe, possibly by invading Celts. Later, emigrants arrived from Mauritania in Africa. These newcomers--Berbers and a few black Africans--became a peasant class under the aristocratic Guanches.

The Guanches dominated the large central islands of Tenerife, La Palma, and Gran Canaria. They lived in cave dwellings, which they enlarged into spacious, multilevel residences with wooden floors and partitioned rooms. Many of them are still in use today, the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in the world. The Guanches owned large estates on which they grew wheat and barley and raised sheep and goats with the aid of the African descendants. The Guanches' rulers were known as "overlords." They owned all the land and granted or leased it, almost exclusively, to citizens of Guanches stock. A primitive agricultural people who used stone tools, the Guanches were well suited to their environment. To communicate over the rocky, mountainous regions of their isles, they developed a whistling language that could be heard, according to European accounts, at a distance of 4 mi.

How and When Destroyed: Although the Guanches had contact with ancient Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, and, probably, Romans, they were isolated from Europe and Africa during the Dark Ages. In the 1300s Genoese and Portuguese slave ships raided the islands in search of human cargo to auction off in European and North African slave markets.

In 1402 a well-organized expedition of French noblemen arrived to conquer the islands. The eastern islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura fell to the invaders, but the central Guanches-dominated isles repelled the Frenchmen. Over the next 90 years Spanish generals with thousands of troops invaded the islands, killing the Guanches or capturing them to sell as slaves. The Portuguese slavers and the Spanish soldiers decimated the Guanches population. In 1484 influenza and typhus, introduced by the Europeans, swept through the islands. The Guanches were so reduced in numbers that they could no longer withstand the Spanish onslaught.

The Last of the Guanches: During the early 1500s the last of the Guanches disappeared into slavery, intermarried with their Spanish conquerors, or died of disease. The culture and society of the Guanches ceased to exist.

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