Politics and Archaeology in the Canary Islands

By Eddy, Michael R. | Antiquity, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Politics and Archaeology in the Canary Islands


Eddy, Michael R., Antiquity


The Canary Islands, 1000 km southwest into the Atlantic from Iberia, are close to the African coast; at the latitude of southern Morocco, they are far southern outliers to Europe as presently defined by its nation-states. The archaeology of their indigenous people, the Guanches, is caught up now in the contemporary politics of the Islas Canarias.

Archaeology in the Canary Islands

When medieval European invaders settled permanently in the islands during the 15th century, they found the archipelago occupied by pastoral farmers living mainly in caves. The islanders - commonly, if imprecisely, known to archaeologists as Guanches - were related to the Berbers of adjacent North Africa. The various conquest-period and colonial accounts (collectively known as the 'chronicles') of islanders' life-styles concentrated on the 'bestial' nature of the inhabitants as a justification for colonization. The colonial chronicles also stressed the absence of Islamic influences in the islands. Taken at face value ever since, this runs counter to the linguistic evidence and Arabic documents. It has been suggested that this discrepancy was due to a combination of the colonists' labour needs and the islanders' desire to avoid expulsion along with the moriscos of Iberia.

During the later 10th century, the remains of the islands' pre-Spanish populations attracted the attention of somatologists. Between the World Wars, human bone collections and chronicle sources were studied by a small group of raciologists, particularly Eugen Fischer (a founder of the Nazi pseudo-science of Rassenkunde) and Dominik Wolfel (a former student of Fischer and pro-Nazi propagandist). Wolfel was in close contact with Sebastian Jimenez Sanchez, Commissioner for Archaeology in the eastern Canaries from 1941 to 1966. Jimenez Sanchez, a former school-teacher and pro-Nazi propagandist with no archaeological training, dominated archaeology in the eastern Canaries for 25 years, during which time and with his active encouragement, Ilse Schwidetsky, a German somatologist, refined the division of pre-Spanish Canarian society based on craniometry (Eddy 1992; 1994a; 1994b).

Schwidetsky's work (e.g. 1963) remains highly influential at the popular level and among academics, though the term etnia has replaced raza (Martin de Guzman 1984; Navarro Mederos 1992: 54; Jimenez Gomez 1993: 21). Her work (and, interestingly, hers alone) has, however, recently been labelled 'the racist school' of Canarian archaeology (Tejera Gaspar & Gonzalez Anton 1987: 26-30; which, with del Arco Aguilar & Navarro Mederos 1987, is an excellent statement of current archaeological thinking in the Canaries, and Tejera Gaspar & Gonzalez Anton 1992 is an English summary of the consensus).

As somatology was being introduced into the study of the Canarian past in the last century, Canarian nationalism also began to develop its philosophical base. Fundamental was the survival of the 'Guanche race' in the modern population of the islands - '[T]hrough our veins runs the blood of those [Guanche] heroes ...' (Gari Hayek 1992: 61, quoting an early nationalist propaganda sheet, El Guanche). The concepts of the African-ness of the Canaries and the survival of supposed Guanche characteristics in the modern population (guanchismo), began to develop. (See Mercer 1980: 259-69 for an English summary of the Canarian independence movement up to the death of Franco.)

The importance of somatological work to guanchismo's development was underlined in the Libro Blanco published in 1970 by MPAIAC, the Movimiento para la Autodeterminacion e Independencia del Archipielago Canario, providing 'the scientific facts' on which a claim to nationhood could be based (Gari Hayek 1992: 119).

The present political situation

After the Civil War, the Canarian independence movement developed close links with the Spanish Communist Party in the Canaries. These links led to schisms in both the independence movement and in the Canary Island Communist Party and to double militancy; and resulted in practical and political support for independence from the Soviet Union, the newly independent Algeria, Cuba and, most recently, Libya (Gari Hayek 1992: 169-242; Rubio Rosales 1994). …

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