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.

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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.

Population Genetics

A 2003 genetics research article by Nicole Maca-Meyer et al. published in the European Journal of Human Genetics compared aboriginal Guanche mtDNA (collected from Canarian archaeological sites) to that of today's Canarians and concluded that, "despite the continuous changes suffered by the population (Spanish colonisation, slave trade), aboriginal mtDNA (direct maternal) lineages constitute a considerable proportion (42 – 73%) of the Canarian gene pool. Although the Berbers are the closest identifiable relatives of the Guanches, it is deduced that important human movements (e.g., the Islamic-Arabic conquest of the Berbers) have reshaped Northwest Africa after the migratory wave to the Canary Islands" and the "results support, from a maternal perspective, the supposition that since the end of the 16th century, at least, two-thirds of the Canarian population had an indigenous substrate, as was previously inferred from historical and anthropological data."[11] mtDNA haplogroup U subclade U6b1 is Canarian-specific[16] and is the most common mtDNA haplogroup found in aboriginal Guanche archaeological burial sites.[11]

Both the study done by Maca-Meyer et al. (2003) on Tenerife aborigines and the study done by Fregel et al. (2009) on La Palma aborigines found the majority of mt-DNA haplogroups belonging to the Eurasian clades such as H/HV/U*/R. The study done by Maca-Meyer et al. (2003) on Tenerife Aborigines used a total sample of 71 aborigines and found that the frequency of the Cambridge Reference Sequence Cambridge Reference Sequence (CRS) which belongs to the European haplogroup H2a2 was 21.12% of the total sample. Meanwhile, the same study Maca-Meyer et al.(2003) found out that frequencies of haplogroups H/HV/U*/R(-CRS) at 30.98% of the total; also mtDNA haplogroup V was observed at frequencies of 4.23% of the total sample."[11]

Y-DNA, or Y-chromosomal, (direct paternal) lineages were not analyzed in this study; however, an earlier study giving the aboriginal y-DNA contribution at 6% was cited by Maca-Meyer et al., but the results were criticized as possibly flawed due to the widespread phylogeography of y-DNA haplogroup E1b1b1b, which may skew determination of the aboriginality versus coloniality of contemporary y-DNA lineages in the Canaries. Regardless, Maca-Meyer et al. states that historical evidence does support the explanation of "strong sexual a result of a strong bias favoring matings between European males and aboriginal females, and to the important aboriginal male mortality during the Conquest."[11] The genetics thus suggests the native men were sharply reduced in numbers due to the war, large numbers of Spaniard men stayed in the islands and married the local women, the Canarians adopted Spanish names, language, and religion, and in this way, the Canarians were Hispanicized.

According to a recent study by Fregel et al. 2009, in spite of the geographic nearness between the Canary Islands and Morocco, the genetic heritage of the Canary islands male lineages, is mainly from European origin. Indeed, nearly 67% of the haplogroups resulting from are Euro–Eurasian (R1a (2.76%), R1b (50.62%)I (9.66%) and G (3.99%)). Unsurprisingly the Spanish conquest brought the genetic base of the current male population of the Canary Islands. Nevertheless, the second most important haplogroup family is from Northern Africa, Near and Middle East. E1b1b (14% including 8.30% of the typical Berber haplogroup E-M81), E1b1a and E1a (1.50%), J (14%) and T (3%) Haplogroups are present at a rate of 33%.