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Canaries: those mummies you’ve never heard of

Others may have ended up at the bottom of the sea, as Álvarez Sosa asserts in his book Tierras de Momias (Lands of Mummy), probably thrown overboard when the too mild conditions prevailing on the ship activated the process of decomposition during the voyage to the mainland.

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


It is not the first time that I have traveled to the Canary Islands to seek answers. Eight years ago, I abseiled down a cliff in the gorge, peering into a dozen caves in search of the thousand mummies. I re-read chronicles of the 15and and 16and centuries and interviewed experts to discover the origins of the first Canarians.

These were the mythical Isles of the Blessed where the ancient navigators of the Mediterranean had landed. Europeans who arrived on 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 gave rise to hypotheses that have now been refuted: they alternately descended from Basque, Iberian, Celtic or Viking sailors who had been shipwrecked. I left the island without even a semblance of a response. But today, modern technology has put an end to the conundrum that has lasted for centuries. The mummies have spoken.

If the place I am exploring is the cave described by Viera y Clavijo, this is where the mummy at the top began its long journey. The winding tale begins in 1764, when she was shipped to Madrid as a gift to King Charles III for the court to realize the skill of the Guanches in accompanying their dead to the afterlife. In 1878 it was exhibited at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, before returning to Madrid, where it remained for more than a century in what is now the National Museum of Anthropology. In 2015, she moved to her current resting place, the city’s National Archaeological Museum. One night in June 2016, under tight security, the mummy was taken for its shortest outing: to a nearby hospital for a CT scan.

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

“It was impressive,” recalls Carrascoso. “The Guanche mummy was much better preserved than the [momies] Egyptians”. The definition of his muscles could still be seen, and the hands and feet in particular were drawn in detailed relief. “She looked like a wooden sculpture of Christ,” he breathes. But the most remarkable discovery was not obvious: unlike its Egyptian counterpart, Guanche’s mummy had not been eviscerated. His organs, including the brain, were still perfectly intact thanks to a mixture – minerals, aromatic herbs, pine and heather bark, and dragon tree resin – which prevented bacteria from taking hold of the body and thus the phenomenon of decomposition. . Radiocarbon dating carried out 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 around 800 to 900 years ago, long before the arrival of the Castilians. The spine showed a dysmorphism common to North African populations, and the 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 corroborated previous tests, leaving no doubt about the kinship of the 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 that they lived at the same time. “We discovered that the populations of each of the islands had their own particularities”, she explains, so that the population of the archipelago was not necessarily homogeneous.


Etymology, epigraphy, and ethnohistorical sources had previously indicated African origins, and scientists now agree. 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 Amazighs, or “free men”. They were farmers and herders, and some arrived in the archipelago with their trades and their domestic animals. Why did they abandon their homes in North Africa? And how did they reach these islands, a hundred kilometers from the coast?

“We have always talked about waves of immigration,” explains Teresa Delgado, curator of the Canarian Museum of Las Palmas. “But maybe it was just groups of families arriving at different times. Perhaps events in North Africa, from Roman rule to the arrival of Islam, triggered periods of migration. »

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


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