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Did you know the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands came from North Africa?

Tracing the presence of Guanches in the modern day Canarian gene pool

Throughout history the Canary Islands have been subjected to many European conquests. Even though it’s known that the Guanches were the first human settlers to arrive in the Canary Islands, their origin as well as their survival following the incorporation of the Canary Islands into the European world has been debated for years. This is the story of what happened to the Guanches, as told by looking at the DNA of both ancient remains and modern day Canarians.

The Canary Islands are a group of Spanish islands 100 km off the coast of southern Morocco. The beautiful beaches, subtropical environment and amazing natural attractions make this archipelago an important tourist destination. The name of this group of islands, Islas Canarias (in Spanish) was likely derived from the Latin term Canariae Insulae meaning the “Islands of the Dogs”, either due to the large number of dogs or “sea dogs” (seals) on the islands, or from the dog worshipping supposedly practiced by the islands’ original inhabitants.

The Guanches were the first humans to have migrated to the islands around 1000 BC. Their arrival likely resulted in the extinction of a giant lizard species (believed to have grown at least 3 ft long) and the Tenerife giant rats that was reportedly over 3 ft 9 in long! They may have had sporadic contact with other populations, including Numidians, Carthaginians and Romans from northern Africa in the 1st to 4th centuries, and Genoese (northern Italian), Portuguese and Castilians (central Spanish), from the 8th century onwards. In 1402, the Castilians began their conquest of the Canary Islands quickly gaining control of two of the islands (Lanzarote and Fuerteventura). The other islands resisted the Castilians, but were eventually conquered by 1496. The Guanches were ethically and culturally absorbed by Spanish settlers, however, there are still traces of their culture in the present-day Canarians.

Origin of the Guanches

Guanches statues (Candelaria, Tenerife island)
Guanches statues (Candelaria, Tenerife island)

Both genetic and linguistic evidence suggests that the Guanches share an ancestry with Moroccan Berbers from North Africa. However, although congruent with history, these genetic findings have been criticized because the studies have used DNA samples of modern day Canarians to make their inferences. A study performed in 2004 addressed these skepticisms by looking at ancient DNA from the remains of 129 Guanches across 15 archaeological locations on four of the islands. The researchers chose to look at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) because there are hundreds to thousands of copies of the mtDNA genome is each of our cells; hence it’s most useful type of DNA for analyzing ancient DNA samples, as it is more abundant than nuclear DNA. The strict maternal inheritance (mother to child) of mtDNA also provides an ideal way to trace maternal lineages through multiple generations.

The researchers were able to generate mtDNA profiles for 71 of the 129 remains, showing that the U6b1 mtDNA lineage was the most abundant. Many other mtDNA lineages were also detected, supporting the suggestions of multiple migratory waves to the Canary Islands before the Castilian conquest in the 1400s. Interestingly, despite a rapid decline in the Guanches population from war, epidemics and slavery during and after the Castilian conquest of the Islands, the U6b1 mtDNA type can still be detected in present day Canarians.

Changes in the slave plantation era (15th – 17th centuries)

A second study focused on the remains discovered from a 15th to 17th century cemetery, located in an old sugar cane field at Finca Clavijo. Although it’s well known that from the 16th to 19th centuries millions of Africans were forcibly moved to America as slaves, many people don’t realize that the earliest Atlantic slave plantations were actually in the Macaronesian archipelagos (including the Canary Islands) from mid 15th century. From the late 15th to 16th centuries, the slaves in the Canary Islands included Moorish individuals from south of Morocco, individuals from sub-Saharan Africa, and the indigenous Guanches captured during the Castilian conquests. Genetic analyses of the remains at Finca Clavijo detected mtDNA types typical for each of these slave groups.

View of Finca Clavijo cemetery
View of Finca Clavijo cemetery (Figure from Santana J (2016) Am J Phys Anthropol)

Isotope analyses showed that most of the individuals had been born in the Canary Islands except for two, who were likely born on the North African coast before moving to the Canary Islands during childhood. Skeletal analyses of all the adults at the cemetery suggested they had undertaken extensive physical activity, especially involving stress on the spine and shoulder joints, which correlates with working as slaves in the sugar plantations.

The researchers also observed several unusual funerary practices at Finca Clavijo. During the 15th-17th centuries, slave masters were required to Christianize their slaves, however it appears that many buried in this cemetery did not follow typical Christian funeral practices. In addition to the traditional Christian practices, there was also evidence of Islamic funeral rituals and colored glass beads typical of African customs.

Changes in the 17th and 18th centuries

Concepción Church at Santa Cruz
Concepción Church at Santa Cruz

The Canary Islands played a crucial role as the last port before crossing the Atlantic, during the discovery and colonization of the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries. Santa Cruz was especially important during this period, as it served as the harbor and capital on one of the major islands, Tenerife Island. During repairs on the Concepción Church at Santa Cruz, researchers once again gained an opportunity to access remains from a previous era. The cemetery was unique, because during that period, all deceased people (including slaves) were buried together rather than at separate burial sites.

mtDNA analysis of the samples from the Concepción Church revealed a population that was similar to the present-day Canary Islands population in terms of DNA diversity. The most common mtDNA types were of European origin as expected due to the colonization of the islands by the Castilians in the 15th century. The indigenous U6b1 lineage was also detected in a considerable proportion of the remains, indicating that individuals of Guanche ancestry were buried there. The presence of the U6a lineages (Moorish slave trade) and L haplogroups (African slave trade) attested to slave trade. There was also a low frequency of American mtDNA types, demonstrating the importance of this harbor for the trans-Atlantic journey to America.

Conclusions

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These genetic studies have helped determine the North African origins of the native population (Guanches) of the Canary Islands, and highlighted the changes in the Canarian population through the centuries. The Castilian colonization in the 15th century resulted in an influx of Europeans, and a large decrease in the native population (due to war, famine and epidemics) in the Canary Islands. Then the slave era brought many Africans to the islands, resulting in a varied population that still exists in the islands today.

The DNA tests conducted in these studies have identified several mitochondrial DNA sequences from ancient and more recent populations of the Canary Islands. If you have taken the DNA Maternal Ancestry Test, you can compare your results against these profiles to see if share a similar maternal lineage.

References:

Maca-Meyer N et al.> (2004) Ancient mtDNA analysis and the origin of the Gaunches. Eur J Hum Genet. 12(2): 155-162.

Santana J et al. (2016) The early colonial Atlantic world: New insights on the African Diaspora from isotopic and ancient DNA analyses of a multiethnic 15th-17th century burial population from the Canary Islands, Spain. Am J Phys Anthropol. 159(2): 300+312.

Maca-Meyer N et al. (2005) Mitochondrial DNA diversity in the 17th-18th century remains from Tenerife (Canary Islands). Am J Phys Anthropol. 127(4): 418-426.

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