Canary Islands: those mummies you’ve never heard of

Others may have ended up at the bottom of the sea, as Álvarez Sosa states in his book Lands of Mummies (Mummy Lands), probably thrown overboard when too mild conditions prevailed on the ship triggered the decomposition process during the voyage to the mainland.

Although we have an intact Guanche mummy and the remains of three dozen more, we know very little about their tombs. “No archaeologist has ever found one xaxo in its original environment ”, explains María García.


This is not the first time I have traveled to the Canary Islands to look for answers. Eight years ago, I abseil down a gorge cliff, looking at a dozen caves in search of the thousand mummies. I re-read the chronicles of the 15thi and 16i centuries and interviewed experts to discover the origins of the early Canaries.

These were the mythical Blessed Islands where the ancient navigators of the Mediterranean had landed. Europeans who came to these islands in the Middle Ages found that, unlike other Atlantic archipelagos, they were inhabited, with their populations seemingly isolated for centuries. The chronicles spoke of great Caucasians, which led to hypotheses that have now been refuted: they alternately descended from Basque, Iberian, Celtic or Viking shipwrecked sailors. I left the island with no resemblance to the answer. But today, modern technology has put an end to the riddle that has lasted for centuries. The mummies have spoken.

If the place I’m exploring is the cave described by Viera y Clavijo, this is where the mummy from the summit began its long journey. The winding story begins in 1764, when it was sent to Madrid as a gift to King Charles III to make the court realize the ability of the Guanches to accompany their dead to the afterlife. In 1878 he exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, before returning to Madrid, where he remained for more than a century in the current National Museum of Anthropology. In 2015 it moved to its current resting place, the city’s National Archaeological Museum. One night in June 2016, under strict security, the mummy was taken for his shortest trip: to a nearby hospital for a CT scan.

“We had already done a computed tomography scan of several Egyptian mummies,” says Javier Carrascoso, head of the radiology department at the QuirónSalud University Hospital in Madrid, who has proposed extending the technology to the Guanche mummy. The scanner provided data that disproved the hypothesis that they simply dehydrated naturally, as well as the theory that the Guanche mummification process was derived from Egypt, about 5,000 km away.

“It was awesome,” Carrascoso recalls. “The Guanche mummy was much better preserved than the [momies] Egyptians ”. The definition of his muscles could still be seen, and his hands and feet in particular were drawn in detailed relief. “She looked like a wooden sculpture of Christ,” she breathes. But the most notable discovery was not obvious: unlike her Egyptian counterpart, Guanche’s mummy had not been gutted. His organs, including his brain, were still perfectly intact thanks to a mixture – minerals, herbs, pine bark and heather and resin from his native dragon – which prevented the bacteria from taking over the body and therefore the phenomenon of decomposition. . Radiocarbon dating in 2016 revealed the presence of a tall, healthy man, possibly an elite member, judging by the condition of his hands, feet and teeth. He was probably between 35 and 40 years old when he died about 800 or 900 years ago, long before the arrival of the Castilians. The spine showed a common dysmorphism in North African populations, and facial features also indicated the neighboring continent.

Rosa Fregel, a researcher at La Laguna University in Tenerife who has been studying early populations in the Canary Islands for years, applied the latest DNA sequencing techniques to the remains of 40 xaxos. The results corroborate previous evidence, leaving no doubt about the kinship of mummies with North Africans: the first inhabitants came from the Maghreb, the northernmost region of the continent, along the Mediterranean. This does not mean that they came from the same place or lived at the same time. “We discovered that the populations of each of the islands had their own particularities,” he explains, so that the population of the archipelago was not necessarily homogeneous.


Etymology, epigraphy, and ethnohistorical sources had already indicated African origins, and now science agrees. Centuries before the arrival of Islam in the region, North Africa was inhabited by Numidian clans. The Greeks and Romans despised them as “barbarians”, while the Numidians called themselves Amazics, or “free men.” They were farmers and ranchers, and some came to the archipelago with their trades and their pets. Why did they leave their homes in North Africa? And how did they get to these islands, a hundred miles from the coast?

“We’ve always talked about waves of immigration,” says Teresa Delgado, curator of the Canary Islands Museum in Las Palmas. “But maybe they were just groups of families arriving at different times. Perhaps the events in North Africa, from Roman rule to the advent of Islam, triggered periods of migration. »

According to José Farrujia, professor of archeology and history at the University of La Laguna de Tenerife, seven of the eight islands have been inhabited continuously for at least the last ten centuries. Their populations shared physical features, and their languages, now extinct, evolved from Libyan Berber. Farrujia also points out that the cave paintings discovered in the archipelago are similar to those in Western Sahara, Algeria and the mountains of the Moroccan Atlas.

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