The Gaunche: Indigenous Inhabitants of the Canary Islands


The Gaunches were the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands, an archipelago situated approximately 100 kilometers west of the North African coast. Believed to have arrived in the first millennium BC, the Gaunches developed a unique culture and spoke a language related to Berber. This article explores the historical background, culture, beliefs, and genetic evidence associated with the Gaunches, shedding light on their complex existence and the impact of European conquest on their population.

Historical Background

1. Prehistory and Genetic Origins

Genetic evidence indicates that northern African people significantly contributed to the aboriginal population of the Canaries after the Sahara’s desertification around 6000 BC. The Guanche language exhibited similarities with Berber languages, supporting the idea of a North African origin. The islands had visitors throughout history, including Numidians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans. The Guanches lived in relative isolation until the Castilian conquest in the 14th century.

2. Pre-conquest Exploration

Accounts by Roman author Pliny the Elder and geographer Strabo mention the Fortunate Isles, but little is known about their populations. The Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi reported a journey in the Atlantic Ocean made by the Mugharrarin, suggesting sporadic contacts with populations from the mainland. The 14th century saw alleged contacts with Balearic seafarers.

3. Castilian Conquest

The Castilian conquest of the Canary Islands began in 1402, with the expedition of Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de la Salle. The Guanches resisted, leading to conflicts on various islands. The conquest, marked by events like the First Battle of Acentejo, resulted in the defeat of the Guanches. Some scholars describe the conquest as an early example of colonial genocide, influencing later Iberian colonization in the Americas.

Culture and Language

1. Language and Etymology

The Guanche language, now extinct, is believed to be related to Berber languages. The term “Guanches” is derived from the native term “guanachinet,” meaning “person of Tenerife.” While initially Tenerife-specific, it now refers to the pre-Hispanic inhabitants of the entire archipelago. Elements of Gaunche culture, such as the whistled language Silbo, have survived within Canarian customs.

2. System of Writing and Rock Carvings

European chroniclers noted the absence of a writing system among the Guanches during the conquest. However, inscriptions, glyphs, rock paintings, and carvings are abundant throughout the islands. Various Mediterranean civilizations’ petroglyphs and Libyco-Berber script have been identified. The Gaunches’ legacy in rock art showcases their unique cultural expressions.

Religion and Mythology

1. Belief System

Little is known about Guanche religion, but a belief in a supreme being existed, known by different names on various islands, such as Achamán, Acoran, Eraoranhan, and Abora. The Guanches worshipped gods associated with elements like the sun, moon, earth, and stars. The demon Guayota was believed to reside in Mount Teide. Idols, such as the Idol of Tara, have been discovered, reflecting their religious practices.

2. Mythical Beings and Festivities

The Gaunches believed in benevolent minor gods, like Maxios, and demons in the form of black dogs, such as Tibicenas. Festivals like Beñesmen, marking the Guanche New Year, reflected their agricultural calendar. Traces of aboriginal traditions persist in modern Romería Relief events, connecting the past with contemporary cultural practices.

Funerals and Mummies

Mummification was not widespread across the islands but was well-developed on Tenerife. Debate surrounds the nature of mummies in Gran Canaria. The Gaunche embalmed their dead, and various burial practices, including sacrifices, have been documented. Guanche mummies provide insights into their funerary customs and societal beliefs surrounding death.

Political and Social System

The Guanches had diverse political and social institutions. Some islands practiced hereditary autocracy through matrilineality, while others had elective governments. Tenerife was divided into nine kingdoms, each ruled by a king or Mencey. The Castilian conquest disrupted the existing political order, leading to betrayals and the ultimate defeat of the Gaunches.

Clothing, Weapons, and Dwellings

Guanches wore garments made from goat skins or woven from plant fibers. They adorned themselves with ornaments and necklaces made from wood, bone, and shells. Their weapons, adapted to the insular environment, included javelins, round stones, spears, maces, and shields. Cave dwellings were common, while some islands built small round houses with crude fortifications.

Genetic Evidence

Modern genetic studies have provided insights into the origins of the Gaunche.

The maternal haplogroup U6b1 is prevalent among the Gaunches, linking them to North African populations. Studies on ancient DNA and modern populations of the Canary Islands suggest a significant retention of Gaunche ancestry among contemporary inhabitants.


The Guanches, as the ancient inhabitants of the Canary Islands, left behind a rich cultural legacy that has endured despite the challenges they faced during the Spanish conquest. Their unique language, beliefs, and customs offer a fascinating window into a pre-Hispanic society shaped by insularity and environmental adaptability. The genetic ties between the Gaunches and modern Canarian populations underscore the lasting impact of this ancient civilization on the region’s heritage.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What languages were spoken by Guanches?

Silbo Gomero and the Gua-nche language. Existence is uncertain and not confirmed.

Was mummification a common practice among Guanches?

Common on Tenerife, debated on Gran Canaria, not verified in La Gomera and El Hierro. Ruled out in Lanzarote and Fuerteventura.

What type of clothing did Guanches wear?

Garments made from goat skins or woven Tamarcos (plant fibers).

What were common ornaments and accessories among Guanches?

Ornaments and necklaces made of wood, bone, and shells, with various designs. Beads of baked earth, cylindrical, often black and red.

What materials were used in crafting Guanche weapons?

Gaunche weapons were crafted from wood, bone, obsidian, and stone. Later influences from medieval European weaponry.

What does the genetic study reveal about Guanches’ maternal ancestry?

Guanches have genetic affinities to modern Moroccan Berbers, Canary Islanders, and Spaniards. They carried a significant amount of the maternal haplogroup U6b1. The study suggests they descended from migrants related to Berbers, contributing 42–73% to the maternal gene pool of modern Canary Islanders.

What happened to the Gaunche after the Castilian conquest?

Violent resistance, death, assimilation into settler population. Unique culture and language disappeared.

Is there any surviving Gaunche language?

Extinct, but Silbo Gomero (whistled language) elements persist in Canarian culture.

How did Guan-ches adapt to their environment?

Used javelins, round stones. Dwelled in caves, constructed round houses with basic fortifications.

What is the genetic legacy of the Guanches?

Genetic ties with modern North Africans, especially Berbers. Maternal haplogroup U6b1 prevalent in modern Canary Islanders.

Who were the Guanches?

The Guanches were the indigenous inhabitants of the Canary Islands.

What language did the Guanches speak?

The Guanches spoke the Guanche language, which went extinct in the 17th century and is believed to have been related to Berber languages.

When did the Guan-ches arrive in the Canary Islands?

It is believed that the Guanches may have arrived on the archipelago in the first millennium BC.

What happened after the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands?

Many Guanches were wiped out by the Spanish conquerors, and the remaining population assimilated into the settler population and culture.

What is Silbo in Canarian customs and traditions?

Silbo is the whistled language of La Gomera Island, which is a part of Canarian customs and traditions.

What is the etymology of the term “Guanches”?

The native term “guanachinet” means “person of Tenerife,” modified by the Castilians into “Guanches.”

What does genetic evidence reveal about the Guanches’ origin?

The first genome-wide data from the Guanches confirmed a North African origin, with genetic similarities to ancient North African Berber peoples.

When did the Castilian conquest of the Canary Islands begin?

The Castilian conquest of the Canary Islands began in 1402 with the expedition of Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de la Salle to the island of Lanzarote.

What role did Alonso Fernández de Lugo play in the conquest?

Alonso Fernández de Lugo played a significant role, capturing Guanche kings and presenting them to Ferdinand and Isabella.

How is the Guanche language known today?

The native Guanche language is known today through a few sentences and individual words, supplemented by several placenames.

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