Who Were the Tenerife Guanches?

Wed, August 1st, 2012 - By Linda

Film maker Ken Burns once said, “History isn’t really about the past…….It’s about defining the present and who we are.” Burns would love the story of the Guanche I think. They belong to Tenerife’s pre-history, and much knowledge was lost when Spain finally conquered the island in 1496, but the Canary Islands are far from the Spanish mainland, and in striving to keep its unique identity Tenerife is uncovering more and more fascinating Guanche history.

Teide National Park

As happened in the Americas around the same time, much information disappeared as the aborigines died fighting, succumbed to new diseases brought by the Conquistadors, or were shipped off as slaves.

The basic facts seem to be these: the Guanches migrated from North Africa possibly around 1,000 BC, possibly later. They were Berber, tall and fair-haired, and the Spanish found them living a Stone Age existence in caves. There is evidence they had contact with the outside world, but, apparently, not a great deal, and the curious thing is, having arrived here (natives of each island have different names), it seems that they never sailed again. That fact is questioned, but what historians seem unanimous on is that they were a noble, brave and honest people. Tenerife was the last island to fall because of fierce resistance by the Guanche.

Guanche excavations in Guimar


The most famous fact we know is that they mummified their dead, and this has been a great aid to anthropologists and historians trying to trace their roots and history. Santa Cruz’s Museum of Nature and Man houses several mummies, and lots of information for history buffs. Remains and artefacts have been found in caves through the island, including under one of the pyramids in Güimar and in the Teide National Park.

Guanche statues at Candelaria


The imposing statues which line the seafront in Candelaria, depicting the rulers of the nine regions, or menceys, are probably the best-known face of the Guanche, but there are memorials of some kind or other throughout the island, including Adeje, where a statue of El Gran Tinerfe sits at the village entrance. El Gran Tinerfe was the last king to rule the entire island. He ruled from Adeje, around a hundred years before the Conquest, and is said to have been so wise that on his death his kingdom was divided by his sons into nine parts, one for each.

El Gran Tinerfe, Adeje, Tenerife


As well as in museums and art, the Guanches are remembered in place names too. La Matanza and La Victoria in Acentejo in the north of the island are the sites of important battles during the Conquest, although the references, La Matanza meaning slaughter and La Victoria meaning victory, refer to the Spanish point of view! Hotels like Los Cristianos’ Princesa Dacil and Playa de las Americas’ Gran Tinerfe take their names from Guanche history. Visiting history fans will find much throughout the island to interest them.

As Tinerfeños come to terms with their almost-lost inheritance it has become the fashion in recent years to choose Guanche names for children, and now you will often meet young people proudly named Naira, Zebenzui, Jonay or Idaira. Research continues, and there are those who dispute the current theories, but the thing everyone seems to agree on is that having a Guanche origin is something of which to be very proud.

Posted : Wednesday, August 1st, 2012 at 3:14 pm
Category : about tenerife
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3 Responses to “Who Were the Tenerife Guanches?”

  1. […] a long way from the centres of Spanish trade after the conquest, the village of Arguayo remained a Guanche settlement for many years, plying its trade of hand thrown pottery while the rest of Tenerife gave […]

  2. […] the Spanish conquered the island in 1496 and set about claiming their spoils, the Guanche had lived happily for centuries, living off the land, the sea and their livestock. As soon as money […]

  3. […] ranges. So the Spanish Crown set about a programme of developing the myriad of paths used by the Guanche to move their animals between winter and summer […]

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