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Guanches (also: Guanchis or Guanchos) (native Guanchinet; Guan=person, Chinet=Teneriffe, man of Teneriffe, corrupted, according to Núñez de la Peña, by Spaniards into Guanchos), were the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands. Strictly the Guanches were the primitive inhabitants of Teneriffe, where they seem to have preserved racial purity to the time of the Spanish conquest, but the name came to be applied to the indigenous populations of all the islands. The Guanches, now extinct as a distinct people, appear, from the study of skulls and bones discovered, to have resembled the Cro-Magnon race of the Quaternary age, and no real doubt is now entertained that they were an offshoot of the race of Berbers which from the dawn of history has occupied northern Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic. Pliny the Elder, deriving his knowledge from the accounts of Juba, king of Mauretania, states that when visited by the Carthaginians under Hanno the Navigator the archipelago was found by them to be uninhabited, but that they saw ruins of great buildings. This would suggest that the Guanches were not the first inhabitants, and from the absence of any trace of Islam among the peoples found in the archipelago by the Spaniards it would seem that this extreme westerly migration of Berbers took place between the time of which Pliny wrote and the conquest of northern Africa by the Arabs. Many of the Guanches fell in resisting the Spaniards, many were sold as slaves, and many conformed to the Roman Catholic faith and married Spaniards.

Such remains as there are of their language, a few expressions and the proper names of ancient chieftains still borne by certain families, connect it with the Berber dialects. In many of the islands signs are engraved on rocks. Domingo Vandewalle, a military governor of Las Palmas, was the first, in 1752, to investigate these; and it is due to the perseverance of D. Aquilino Padran, a priest of Las Palmas, that anything about the inscription on the island Hierro has been brought to light. In 1878 Dr R. Verneau discovered in the ravines of Las Balos some genuine Libyan inscriptions. Without exception the rock inscriptions have proved to be Numidic. In two of the islands (Tenerife and La Gomera) the Guanche type has been retained with more purity than in the others. No inscriptions have been found in these two islands, and therefore it would seem that the true Guanches did not know how to write. In the other islands numerous Semitic traces are found, and in all of them are the rock-signs. From these facts it would seem that the Numidians, travelling from the neighbourhood of Carthage and intermixing with the dominant Semitic race, landed in the Canary Islands, and that it is they who have written the inscriptions at Hierro and Grand Canary.

Table of contents
1 Political System
2 Clothes and Weapons
3 Funerals
4 Religion

Political System

The political and social institutions of the Guanches varied. In some islands hereditary autocracy prevailed; in others the government was elective. In Teneriffe all the land belonged to the chiefs who leased it to their subjects. In Grand Canary suicide was regarded as honourable, and on a chief inheriting, one of his subjects willingly honoured the occasion by throwing himself over a precipice. In some islands polyandry was practised; in others the natives were monogamous. But everywhere the women appear to have been respected, an insult offered any woman by an armed man being a capital offence.

Clothes and Weapons

Almost all the Guanches used to wear garments of goat-skins, and others of vegetable fibres, which have been found in the tombs of Grand Canary. They had a taste for ornaments, necklaces of wood, bone and shells, worked in different designs. Beads of baked earth, cylindrical and of all shapes, with smooth or polished surfaces, mostly black and red in colour, were chiefly in use. They painted their bodies; the pintaderas, baked clay objects like seals in shape, have been explained by Dr Verneau as having been used solely for painting the body in various colours. They manufactured rough pottery, mostly without decorations, or ornamented by means of the finger-nail. The Guanches’ weapons were those of the ancient races of south Europe. The polished battle-axe was more used in Grand Canary, while stone and obsidian, roughly cut, were commoner in Teneriffe. They had, besides, the lance, the club, sometimes studded with pebbles, and the javelin, and they seem to have known the shield.

They lived in natural or artificial caves in their mountains. In districts where cave-dwellings were impossible, they built small round houses and, according to the Spaniards, they even practised rude fortification.


In Palma the old people were at their own wish left to die alone. After bidding their family farewell they were carried to the sepulchral cave, nothing but a bowl of milk being left them. The Guanches embalmed their dead; many mummies have been found in an extreme state of desiccation, each weighing not more than 6 or 7 pound). Two almost inaccessible caves in a vertical rock by the shore 3 miles from Santa Cruz (Teneriffe) are said still to contain bones. The process of embalming seems to have varied. In Teneriffe and Grand Canary the corpse was simply wrapped up in goat and sheep skins, while in other islands a resinous substance was used to preserve the body, which was then placed in a cave difficult of access, or buried under a tumulus. The work of embalming was reserved for a special class, women for female corpses, men for male. Embalming seems not to have been universal, and bodies were often simply hidden in caves or buried.


Little is known of the religion of the Guanches. They appear to have been a distinctly religious race. There was a general belief in a supreme being, called Acoran, in Grand Canary, Achihuran in Teneriffe, Eraoranhan in Hierro, and Abora in Palma. The women of Hierro worshipped a goddess called Moneiba. According to tradition the male and female gods lived in mountains whence they descended to hear the prayers of the people. In other islands the natives venerated the sun, moon, earth and stars. A belief in an evil spirit was general. The demon of Teneriffe was called Guayota and lived in the peak of Teide volcano, which was the hell called Echeyde.

In times of drought the Guanches drove their flocks to consecrated grounds, where the lambs were separated from their mothers in the belief that their plaintive bleatings would melt the heart of the Great Spirit. During the religious feasts all war and even personal quarrels were stayed.

This article is based on a 1911 encyclopedia