Located over 100 km off the coast of mainland Africa and more than ten times farther from Europe’s southern fringe, Tenerife isn’t exactly what you’d picture as a significant historical thoroughfare – or a haven of cultural rarity. But, in fact, it’s both.
Not only was the island the last stop on this side of the Atlantic for colonial ships sailing to the New World, but the legacy of its indigenous people – the Guanches – is both unusual and enduring, despite fierce Spanish colonization.
1. Who were the Guanches?
The Guanches were the original inhabitants of Tenerife, having lived on the island since at least 1000 BC. They were largely blue-eyed and fair-haired, and are believed to have been an offshoot of the Berbers of North Africa.
In appearance, language and culture, Tenerife’s Guanches were quite similar to the aboriginals of the other Canarian islands, so the term Guanche is used today to refer to the indigenous population and cultures of the entire archipelago.
Following the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands in the 15th century, the Guanche peoples were gradually fully assimilated. Their legacy, however, survives in elements of Canarian culture to this day – and is responsible for many a blue-eyed Canario.
2. Guanche Place Names
Adeje, Anaga, Güímar, Icod, Tacoronte, Taganana are among the many place names in Tenerife of Guanche origin — as is, by all accounts the name Tenerife itself.
While historians agree that Tenerife comes from Guanche, their opinions on the word’s meaning are quite diverse. Some claim it’s a variant of the island’s aboriginal name: Achinet/Chenech/Achined. Others attribute it to the legendary king Tinerfe, who ruled the island before it was divided and fathered the nine pre-conquest kings or menceys. Yet another theory claims that tener+ife translates to ‘white+mountain’ — a reference to snowcapped Mt. Teide (originally Echeyde), which held a central place in Guanche mythology.
3. Silbo Gomero
Silbo Gomero, also known simply as el silbo, is a whistled version of Spanish that is still used today on La Gomera. Prior to the advent of mobiles, the language was an important means of communication on the island as it can be heard at distances up to 5 km – a necessity when the landscape is carved up by deep, long gorges and tall mountain ridges.
One of the rare surviving whistled languages in the world, Silbo was originally a whistled form of Guanche, used on Tenerife, La Gomera, El Hierro and Gran Canaria. Following the colonization, the language was adapted to Spanish and then eventually faced extinction in the 20th century. Luckily, it was revived through government efforts and is today protected by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
4. Guanche Mummies and Cave Art
All Canarian aboriginals embalmed their dead, although the practice was especially developed in Tenerife. Guanche mummies from caves across the island are on display at the Museo de la Naturaleza y el Hombre in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.
Some of these caves have preserved Guanche rock art and inscriptions, as can be seen on this 3D-model of a partial cave wall in Guía de Isora. The most famous Guanche cave sites on Tenerife are in and around Icod de los Vinos.
5. Monuments to Guanches in Tenerife
A modern tribute to Tenerife’s original culture, statues of Guanche figures can be found across the island.
The most famous are representations of Tenerife’s nine Guanche kings or menceys, which flank the oceanfront of Candelaria’s Plaza de la Patrona de Canarias and the statue of their father, Tinerfe, in Adeje.
Another well-known monument is Orotava’s statue of Guanche princess Dácil, who, just like the legendary Pochanhontas, married one of her people’s conquerors.
6. Guanches in Popular Culture
As is the case with many cultures that were assimilated into extinction (e.g. the Mayas) the Guanches have been subject to many theories that aren’t supported by scientific findings or recorded history. Some claim the Guanches descended from the mythical Atlantians, while others believe the aboriginals constructed the stepped pyramids in Güímar although archaeologists dated the structures to the 19th century.
Speculation aside, the Guanches were without a doubt a unique, vibrant culture and remain an essential part of Tenerife’s cultural heritage.