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FireShot Capture 006 - Canary Islands -
Canary Islands
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Canary Islands

Pre-conquest exploration


Canary Islands in pre-colonial times

The geographic accounts of Pliny the Elder and of Strabo mention the Fortunate Isles but do not report anything about their populations. An account of the Guanche population may have been made around AD 1150 by the Arab geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in the Nuzhatul Mushtaq, a book he wrote for King Roger II of Sicily, in which al-Idrisi reports a journey in the Atlantic Ocean made by the Mugharrarin ("the adventurers"), a family of Andalusian seafarers from Lisbon. The only surviving version of this book, kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and first translated by Pierre Amédée Jaubert, reports that, after having reached an area of "sticky and stinking waters", the Mugharrarin moved back and first reached an uninhabited Island (Madeira or Hierro), where they found "a huge quantity of sheep, which its meat was bitter and inedible" and, then, "continued southward" and reached another island where they were soon surrounded by barks and brought to "a village whose inhabitants were often fair haired with long and flaxen hair and the women of a rare beauty". Among the villagers, one did speak Arabic and asked them where they came from. Then the king of the village ordered them to bring them back to the continent where they were surprised to be welcomed by Berbers.[8] Apart from the marvelous and fanciful content of this history, this account would suggest that Guanches had sporadic contacts with populations from the mainland. Al-Idrisi also described the Guanche men as tall and of a reddish-brown complexion.

Free | Noble Man

Berbers | Amazigh

Some proportion of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands are descended from the aboriginal Guanches—usually considered to have been Berber—among whom a few Canary Islander customs, such as the eating of gofio, originated.


While Berbers are stereotyped as nomads, and indeed some tribes are, the majority are typically farmers. It is difficult to estimate the number of Berbers in the world today, because many do not define themselves as Berber. However the Berber language is spoken by an estimated 14 to 25 million people.  

The Berbers have lived in North Africa for thousands of years and their presence has been recorded as early as 3000 B.C.E. GreeksRomans, and ancient Egyptians have indicated the presence of Berbers in their records.[1] There is no complete certitude about the origin of the Berbers; however, various disciplines shed light on the matter.

In general, genetic evidence appears to indicate that most northwest Africans (whether they consider themselves Berber or Arab) are predominantly of Berber origin, and that populations ancestral to the Berbers have been in the area since the Upper Paleolithic era. The genetically predominant ancestors of the Berbers appear to have come from East Africa, the Middle East, or both—but the details of this remain unclear. However, significant proportions of both the Berber and Arabized Berber gene pools derive from more recent human migration of various Italic, Semitic, Germanic, and sub-Saharan African peoples, all of whom have left their genetic footprints in the region.

The Neolithic Capsian culture appeared in North Africa around 9,500 B.C.E. and lasted until possibly 2700 B.C.E. Linguists and population geneticists alike have identified this culture as a probable period for the spread of an Afro-Asiatic language (ancestral to the modern Berber languages) to the area. The origins of the Capsian culture, however, are archeologically unclear. Some have regarded this culture's population as simply a continuation of the earlier Mesolithic Ibero-Maurusian culture, which appeared around 22,000 B.C.E., while others argue for a population change; the former view seems to be supported by dental evidence.

The two largest populations of Berbers are found in Algeria and Morocco, where large portions of the population are descended from Berbers but only some of them identify as Amazigh. Roughly one-fourth of the population in Algeria is estimated to be Berber, while Berbers are estimated to make up more than three-fifths of the population in Morocco. In the Sahara of southern Algeria and of Libya, Mali, and Niger, the Berber Tuareg number more than two million.

It was the Arabs, who had enlisted Berber warriors for the conquest of Spain, who nevertheless gave those peoples a single name, turning barbarian (speakers of a language other than Greek and Latin) into Barbar, the name of a race descended from Noah

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, the greatest of those—the Almoravids and the Almohads, nomads of the Sahara and villagers of the High Atlas, respectively—conquered Muslim Spain and North Africa as far east as Tripoli (now in Libya). Their Berber successors—the Marinids at Fès (now in Morocco), the Ziyanids at Tlemcen (now in Algeria), and the Ḥafṣids at Tunis (now in Tunisia) and Bijaya (now Bejaïa, Algeria)—continued to rule until the 16th century.

Meanwhile, Berber merchants and nomads of the Sahara had initiated a trans-Saharan trade in gold and slaves that incorporated the lands of the Sudan into the Islamic world.

Those achievements of the Barbar were celebrated in a massive history of North Africa (Kitāb al-ʿIbār) by the 14th-century Arab historian Ibn Khaldūn.

At the same time, an influx from the east of warrior Arab nomads from the 11th century onward was driving the Berbers off the plains and into the mountains and overrunning the desert. Together those factors were turning the population from Berber speakers into Arabic speakers, with a consequent loss of original identities. From the 16th century onward the process continued in the absence of Berber dynasties, which were replaced in Morocco by Arabs claiming descent from the Prophet and elsewhere by Turks at Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.

When the French conquered Algeria in the 19th century and Morocco in the 20th, they seized on the distinction between the Arab majority and the Berbers of the mountains.

Ancient mtDNA analysis and the origin of the Guanches

The prehistoric colonisation of the Canary Islands by the Guanches (native Canarians) woke up great expectation about their origin, since the Europeans conquest of the Archipelago. Here, we report mitochondrial DNA analysis (HVRI sequences and RFLPs) of aborigine remains around 1000 years old. The sequences retrieved show that the Guanches possessed U6b1 lineages that are in the present day Canarian population, but not in Africans. In turn, U6b, the phylogenetically closest ancestor found in Africa, is not present in the Canary Islands. Comparisons with other populations relate the Guanches with the actual inhabitants of the Archipelago and with Moroccan Berbers. This shows that, despite the continuous changes suffered by the population (Spanish colonisation, slave trade), aboriginal mtDNA lineages constitute a considerable proportion of the Canarian gene pool. Although the Berbers are the most probable ancestors of the Guanches, it is deduced that important human movements have reshaped Northwest Africa after the migratory wave to the Canary Islands.

The first human settlers that arrived at the Canary Islands do not seem to pre-date the 1st millennium BC.1 Since the incorporation of the Canary Islands to the European world in the 15th century, the origin and survival of these aboriginal inhabitants has been a debatable topic. Population genetic studies on their present day inhabitants, mainly those based on uniparental markers, have given support to the most probable Northwest African Berber origin of the ‘Guanches’, as the native Canarians are generally known. Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) lineages such as U6 and Y-chromosome markers as M81, with a Berber origin,2,3 have a significant higher presence in the Canary Islands than in Iberians, the main colonisers of the Islands.4,5

Admixture analysis taking the Iberians, Northwest and West sub-Saharan African populations as parental sources of the actual Canarian population, gave estimates of around 33% for the maternal4 and 6% for the paternal5 Guanche lineages. This strong sexual asymmetry was explained as a result of a strong bias favouring matings between European males and aboriginal females, and to the important aboriginal male mortality during the Conquest.6 However, these results, although congruent with history, are susceptible of criticism. First of all, as the Berber markers are also present in the Iberian Peninsula,7,8,9 drift effects after the Spanish colonisation could justify their higher frequency in the Canary Islands, without invoking aboriginal heritage. Furthermore, after the Conquest, the need of labour led to the introduction of slaves from the Northwest African coast. With time, these slaves were freed and integrated into the island population. This could justify the presence, in the current Canarian gene pool, of a higher amount of Berber markers than the Iberian Peninsula. However, the geographic distribution of the U6 subclades in Africa and the Canary Islands weakens this statement. In Northwest Africa, the predominant subgroup is U6a, which is scarce in the Archipelago.2,4 On the other hand, subgroup U6b is very rare in North Africa, but the sublineage U6b1 is the most prevalent of the U6 subhaplogroup in the Canarian population,4 and has still not been detected in North Africa.2,10,11,12 Certainly, the straight way to confirm the aboriginal contribution, to the current mtDNA gene pool of the Archipelago, would be to check for the presence of this Canarian U6b1 subclade directly on the aboriginal remains of the Islands. Fortunately, the advances in molecular biology have made the retrieval of ancient DNA (aDNA) from archaeological specimens a tenable goal, especially if these remains are probably less than 1000 years old.

Maca-Meyer, N., Arnay, M., Rando, J. et al. Ancient mtDNA analysis and the origin of the Guanches. Eur J Hum Genet 12, 155–162 (2004).


The Afro-Asiatic Language Family

Meredith Holt
Linguistics 450
28 July 1999


Written records of Egyptian and Semitic (both Afro-Asiatic languages) date back at least four thousand years, giving the Afro-Asiatic language family the longest history of any known language group (Atlas, p.51). This rich history gives this language family a unique quality. Since written records survive in North Africa, it has been perhaps easier to reconstruct ancient language roots than, for example, in Indo-European. There has long been a fascination with studying the languages of Saharan Africa. As early as the Middle Ages, comparative studies were being done with Hebrew and Arabic and as a result striking similarities were discovered (ELL,p.51). The nineteenth century was a time of great discovery within the Afro-Asiatic family. Some of these discoveries will be overviewed by discussing the locations, origins and migrations, sub-groupings and characteristics of Afro-Asiatic, as well as ties to other language families and fields outside of linguistics.



Africa is divided by geographical features, including the Sahara desert and the Ethiopian mountains. This great divide has made travel difficult so linguistic boundaries tend to be based on either side. North of the Sahara and the Ethiopian mountains are the Afro-Asiatic languages. To the south lay the other language families of Africa: Niger-Kordofanian, Nilo-Saharan, and Khoisan (Atlas,p74). These three groups are classified as being in Africa while Afro-Asiatic is listed under the term Eurasia (Atlas, p.74). Among the countries included in this language family are: Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Sudan, Egypt, Algeria, and Ethiopia.


Origins, Migrations, and Language Contacts

Proto-Afro-Asiatic is proposed to have been spoken 18,000 years ago near the Horn of Africa (eastern Africa). Three dialects emerged (Omotic, Cushitic, and Chadic) from the main one and this left ‘Boreafrasian,’ the source of Berber, Egyptian and Semitic (Dalby ,p. 6). The speakers of ‘Boreafrasian’ migrated north to an arid Sahara climate, then eventually pushed on west and east. Omotic, Cushitic, and Chadic are also spoken north of the Sahara so it must be assumed that the speakers of these "dialects" migrated north likewise, though perhaps separately from the ‘Boreafrasian’ speakers (Dalby, p.6).

The languages of what is now Afro-Asiatic occupy a "vast area that stretches from Morocco to Arabia" (Dalby, p.6). This is in part due to ‘Boroafrasian’ speakers breaking into groups such as Berber and Egyptian in North Africa and Semitic dialects in the Arabian Peninsula. Semitic speakers moved into the Fertile Crescent and "emerg[ed] into history" by bringing Akkadian (a Semitic language) into what is now Iraq, a previously Sumerian-speaking area (Dalby ,p6). There was additional language contact within the Afro-Asiatic family when Arabs invaded Egypt in 640 A.D. Coptic, a daughter language of ancient Egyptian, had flourished until that time but was replaced eventually by Arabic (Voegelin ,p13).



Theodor Benfy found that Egyptian and Semitic languages were similar in 1844, and he classified them under the Semito-Hamitic language family. The name Hamitic originates from Ham, one of the sons of Noah. (Though I found no mention of the origin of ‘Semito-,’ it is possible that this name comes from Shem, another son of Noah). Benfy’s title was later inverted to make Hamito-Semitic but over time racial connotations were applied to this name (Voegelin, p.13). This language family has now been renamed Afro-Asiatic, because this term is less culture specific (Dalby, p.6).

In Afro-Asiatic, there are five main families. Egyptian is classified as a distinct language and the other sub-groups are: Berber, Chadic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Semitic (Voegelin, p.12). These classifications of language sub-sets vary according to different texts. In An Encyclopedia of Language, Omotic is listed as a sub-set of Cushitic, and Andrew Dalby writes the Egyptian division as "Egyptian-Coptic," even though Coptic is considered to be a sub-set of Egyptian.

The Semitic line of Afro-Asiatic has the most language sub-sets. Under East Semitic rose Akkadian and Babylonian. West Semitic brought forth such languages as Canaanite, Aramaic, Hebrew, and Arabic (EL, p.906). Of all of the languages in the Afro-Asiatic line, Arabic is the most widely spoken language, stretching from Western Africa to the Middle East (ELL, p.51).



A main characteristic of Afro-Asiatic languages is the use of vowel changes in word formation. Like in the English example, feet foot, vowels make the difference between separate words. In Arabic, ‘ti-ktib’ means she writes and ‘katab-it’ means she wrote. The prefixes ‘ti’ and ‘it’ mean she. The root form of the verb has only three consonants in common. Therefore the root is considered ‘ktb.’ When looking for roots it is important to remember that early Semitic only had consonants and vowels had to be inferred from the context (Atlas, p.78-79).

Since there is written data available from this region, it is easier to reconstruct ancient roots and find common characteristics (ELL, p.51). The reconstructed consonants for Proto-Afro-Asiatic are p and b, t and d, and k and g. The Egyptian ‘bw’ meaning ‘place’ and the Semitic ‘bi’ meaning ‘in or from’ are believed to be from the reconstructed root *b- meaning foot or place (ELL, p.51).


Other Language Families and Fields of Study

Afro-Asiatic has been hypothesized to be related to many other language families. These include Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, Altaic and Dravidian (Atlas, p.74). Archaeology and the study of oral traditions helps linguists find connections between language families. Looking at present languages and going backward helps us know what languages were like anciently (Atlas, p.75).

Afro-Asiatic is a large language family with great diversity. At the same time, linguistic similarities such as vowel changes help show relationships among languages. From the earliest times we have written records from Northern Africa. These records make it possible to classify and reconstruct many languages. The main quality of Afro-Asiatic is that it "cuts across usually perceived racial boundaries" (Dalby, p.6). Great variety is incorporated in one family and this makes Afro-Asiatic an interesting topic of study.


Works Cited

An Encyclopedia of Language. London: Routledge, 1990. (abbrev. as EL).

Dalby, Andrew. Dictionary of Languages. London, Bloomsbury, 1998.

The Atlas of Languages. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1996.

The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics. Vol.1. Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1994. (abbrev. as ELL).

Voegelin, C.F. Classification and Index of the World’s Languages. New York: Elsevier, 1977.

1998-1999 © Dr. Cynthia L. Hallen
Department of Linguistics
Brigham Young University
Last Updated: Monday, September 6, 1999

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