The Stone Age on La Palma

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“Un momento senor, hay una guia que habla ingles”. The woman at the entrance desk in the museum in Los Llanos is doing her best to help me: “One moment Sir, we have a guide who speaks English”. I have just explained to her that I work as a volunteer in a museum in the Netherlands and that I would like to write an article about this museum.

In the museum

It takes a while before the guide is ready to help me because she had just left the museum on an errand. In the meantime the lady at the counter is explaining that here on La Palma I should not refer to the original inhabitants of the island as “Guanchen”. I must call them “Benahoaritas”, the correct name for the ancient inhabitants of this island in the Canaries. This island, which is so different from Gran Canaria or Tenerife: much quieter, greener, with almost no high-rise buildings and no hordes of drunken teenagers, but which attracts people who come here for peace and quiet and to enjoy nature. And not forgetting the wonderful climate!

After about ten minutes the English-speaking guide appears and introduces herself: Nieves Martin. She speaks the same kind of English as the people at Tourist Information and the Iberia stewardesses: you can hardly understand it! The Spanish accent is so strong that it takes a while before you get used to it. She tells me that I may take photographs anywhere and that I can write whatever I like, but she says, “joe sjoerlie understend, senor, aj wiel ienform maai boss!” I give her my name and e-mail address and also the website of the Hunebedcentrum.

Wall paintings near El Paso on La Palma

The entire upper floor of the MAB, “El Museo Arqueologico Benahoarita” is devoted to the “Benahoaritas”, the original inhabitants of the island of La Palma. The history of these people is full of mysteries and riddles. Roman and Greek writings tell of islands “on the other side of the Pillars of Hercules” (i.e. Gibraltar). But the origin of these people is even now uncertain. Are they descendants of the Berbers of North Africa? Are they descendants of peoples from around the shores of the Mediterranean? Are they descended from Vikings or people from Britain? We still do not know. Extensive genetic research has been carried out into their origins but so far it has proved impossible to decode the DNA. Research led by Professor José Maria Larruga of the University of La Laguna on Tenerife has determined that the present-day inhabitants of the Canary Islands share some specific haplotypes with the original inhabitants, and that these are found nowhere else in the world. These specific haplotypes are designated as U6b1 and appear in between 40% and 70% of the mitochondrial DNA of the Canary Islanders. Group U6 indicates an African origin, but the rest is a mystery. The Benahoaritas were a tall people, between 1.70 and 1.85 metres, much taller than the inhabitants of other nearby countries. They had blond or brown hair and blue eyes, which is also different from their neighbours. Looking at these characteristics, some anthropologists have pointed to similarities with Cro-Magnon people from the last phase of the Ice Ages. If the Benahoaritas indeed turn out to be descendants of Cro-Magnon man, then that would help to explain why the people of this “sub-culture” differ so much from the peoples around them.

The first comprehensive accounts of these people were written by Spanish historians. In 1492 La Palma was conquered by a Spanish army, led by Alonso de Lugo. He had been commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella, king and queen of Spain, to gain La Palma and Tenerife for the Spanish throne. He met fierce resistance on La Palma from Benahoaritas armed with wooden spears and stones. Despite being armed with guns, swords and cannons, the Spaniards failed to crush the tribe, who lived in the enormous crater of the dormant volcano. Here in this “Caldera de Taburiente” the leader Tanausú and his men held out fiercely. The Spanish commander De Lugo was forced to resort to an old trick. He invited Tanausú for peace talks, unarmed, and in this way he lured the chief and his supporters out of their natural rocky fortress and took them prisoner. They were put in chains and taken on board the Spanish ships. Tanausú refused to eat or drink and died before reaching Spain.

How did these people live?

People on La Palma lived in natural caves, and also in houses made by piling up stones. These were covered with flat stones resting on wooden beams. The stones were waterproofed with clay and plant-based materials. The houses consisted of several chambers which were used for sleeping, living and storage. In the middle of the house was a hearth. An Italian historian, Leonardo Torriani, describes how the interiors of the houses were beautifully decorated using pigments obtained from vegetation. This paintwork was the responsibility of the women.

The women of La Palma also fought alongside their menfolk and were so fierce on the battlefield that the Spaniards called them “Amazones”, after the Amazons in Greek mythology. A woman could not be king, but it was the high priestess who decided who would become king. Women could follow a sort of training to become a member of the circle of “Harimiguadas”. They learned how to gather and use herbs, how to process hides and sew them for clothes, and how to make pottery and jewellery. The Spaniards described the places where these women lived together as a sort of convent, but the women were free to choose a husband. However, they had first to obtain the approval of the king and he then had the “right of the first night”. After this he handed the woman over to the bridegroom and then played an enthusiastic part in the wedding celebrations.

Tools were fashioned from wood, bone and stone. Metal was unknown, as were the plough and the wheel. They did not use wool or cotton and clothing and shoes were made exclusively of leather. Pottery was made by piling rings of clay on top of each other and then forming it into pots and pitchers, which were then decorated with incised patterns.

On the surface you might see here similarities between the lives of these people and that of the Funnel Beaker People: for instance in their use of tools and in the making of pottery. But there the similarities end.

The top of the island: The Roque de los Muchachos, 2,426 metres.

What makes these people so fascinating?

The answer is, above all, the mysterious origins of their culture. There are undoubtedly indications that this stems from tribes in North Africa, but there is also evidence of a link with rock drawings (petroglyphs) in Scotland and Ireland. Mummification of the dead however also points to an Egyptian influence.

Recent studies have disproved the idea that the people of the Canary Islands had no written script. Various inscriptions of a Libyan-Berber origin have been found on the easterly islands, while inscriptions on the western islands have a neo-Punic (i.e. Carthaginian) origin. Furthermore the islands contain many rock carvings with geometrical shapes, lines, circles, diamonds, and other shapes resembling chess boards or spirals. In addition, there are many images of animals and, on higher places offering a distant view, images of sailing ships.

And all this on an island that continues to surprise us with its wide diversity of nature in a relatively small area: from rain forests in the northeast to arid volcanic landscapes in the south, with a wonderful climate and friendly people. All of which brought us back in December for our sixteenth visit to one of the most fantastic places on Earth.

From rainforest to arid volcanic landscape: La Palma

Hans Meijering

Translation: Alun Harvey

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