Guanches (also: Guanchis or Guanchos), now extinct as a distinct people, were the first known inhabitants of the Canary Islands, having migrated to the archipelago sometime between 1000 BC and 100 BC. Europeans saw their culture as being neolithic when Europeans colonized the Canary Islands in the Middle Ages. Their culture as such has since disappeared, although traces of it can still be found, an example being the "whistle" Silbo language of La Gomera Island.
The Roman author and military officer, Pliny the Elder, drawing upon the accounts of Juba II, king of Mauretania, states that a Mauretanian expedition to the islands around 50 BC found the ruins of great buildings, but otherwise no population to speak of. If this account is accurate, it may suggest that the Guanches were not the only inhabitants, or the first ones; or that the expedition simply did not explore the islands thoroughly.
Strictly speaking, the Guanches were the primitive inhabitants of Tenerife, where the population seems to have lived in relative isolation up to the time of the Castilian conquest, around the 14th century (though Genoans, Portuguese, and Castilians had occasionally landed there since the second half of the 8th century). The name came to be applied to the original populations of Tenerife island, the most important.
Some Guanches died resisting the European colonizers, while others died from infectious diseases that accompanied the invaders, diseases to which the Guanches, because of their long isolation, had little immunity.
What remains of their language, Guanche—a few expressions, vocabulary words and the proper names of ancient chieftains still borne by certain families—exhibits positive similarities with the Berber languages. The first reliable account of Guanche language was provided by Genovese explorer Nicoloso da Recco in 1341, with a translation of numbers used by the islanders.
Petroglyphs attributed to various Mediterranean civilizations have been found on some of the islands. In 1752, Domingo Vandewalle, a military governor of Las Palmas, attempted to investigate them, and Aquilino Padron, a priest at Las Palmas, catalogued inscriptions at El Julan, La Candía and La Caleta on El Hierro. In 1878 Dr. R. Verneau discovered rock carvings in the ravines of Las Balos that resemble Libyan or Numidic writing from the time of Roman occupation or earlier. In other locations, Libyco-Berber script has been identified. However, according to European chroniclers, the Guanches did not possess a system of writing at the time of conquest.
The Spanish conquest of the islands began in 1402, with the expedition of Jean de Béthencourt and Gadifer de la Salle to the island of Lanzarote. Gadifer would conquer Lanzarote and Fuerteventura with ease since many of the aborigines, faced with issues of starvation and poor agriculture, would surrender to Castilian rule.
The other five islands fought back. El Hierro and the Bimbache population were the next to fall, then La Gomera, Gran Canaria, La Palma and in 1496, Tenerife.
Tenerife was most successful against the Castilian invaders. In the First Battle of Acentejo (31 May 1494), called La Matanza or "The Slaughter," poorly armed Guanches with only stones ambushed the Castilians in a valley and killed many.
One in five survived, including the leader of the expedition, Alonso Fernandez de Lugo. Lugo would return later to the island with the alliance of the kings of the southern part of the island, and defeated the Guanches in the Battle of Aguere. The northern Menceyatos or provinces fell after the Second Battle of Acentejo with the defeat of the successor of Bencomo, Bentor, Mencey of Taoro - what is now the Orotava Valley - in 1496.
The islands were visited by a number of peoples within recorded history. The Numidians, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians knew of the islands and made frequent visits. The Romans occupied northern Africa and visited the Canaries between the 1st and 4th centuries AD, judging from Roman artifacts found on the island of Lanzarote.These show that Romans did trade with the Canaries, though there is no evidence of their ever settling there. However, the cultures of the Canaries seem to have reached a higher level of technology than the Neolithic culture that was encountered at the time of conquest.
Y-DNA, or Y-chromosomal, (direct paternal) lineages were not analyzed in this study. However, an earlier study giving the aboriginal y-DNA contribution at 6% was cited by Maca-Meyer et al. but the results were critiqued as possibly flawed due to the widespread phylogeography of y-DNA haplogroup E1b1b1b, which may skew determination of the aboriginality versus coloniality of contemporary y-DNA lineages in the Canaries. Regardless, Maca-Meyer et al. states that historical evidence does support the explanation of "strong sexual asymmetry...as a result of a strong bias favouring matings between European males and aboriginal females, and to the important aboriginal male mortality during the Conquest.
Little is known of the religion of the Guanches. They appear to have had a distinct religious system. There was a general belief in a supreme being, called Acoran in Gran Canaria, Achaman in Tenerife, Eraoranhan in Hierro, and Abora in La Palma. The women of Hierro worshipped a goddess called Moneiba. According to tradition the male and female gods lived in mountains whence they descended to hear the prayers of the people. In other islands the natives venerated the sun, moon, earth and stars. A belief in an evil spirit was general. The demon of Tenerife was called Guayota and lived at the peak of Teide volcano, which was the hell called Echeyde; in Gran Canaria demons were black wild woolled dogs called Tibicenas which attacked the livestock and persons, living in deep caves of the mountains.
In times of drought the Guanches drove their flocks to consecrated grounds, where the lambs were separated from their mothers in the belief that their plaintive bleatings would melt the heart of the Great Spirit. During the religious feasts all war and even personal quarrels were stayed.
In La Palma the old people were at their own wish left to die alone. After bidding their family farewell, they were carried to the sepulchral cave, nothing but a bowl of milk being left them. The Guanches embalmed their dead; many mummies have been found in an extreme state of desiccation, each weighing not more than 6 or 7 pounds. Two almost inaccessible caves in a vertical rock by the shore 3 miles from Santa Cruz (Tenerife) are said still to contain bones. The process of embalming seems to have varied. In Tenerife and Gran Canaria the corpse was simply wrapped up in goat and sheep skins, while in other islands a resinous substance was used to preserve the body, which was then placed in a cave difficult to access, or buried under a tumulus. The work of embalming was reserved for a special class, women for female corpses, men for male. Embalming seems not to have been universal, and bodies were often simply hidden in caves or buried.
The political and social institutions of the Guanches varied. In some islands hereditary autocracy prevailed; in others the government was elective. In Tenerife all the land belonged to the kings who leased it to their subjects. In Gran Canaria, suicide was regarded as honourable, and whenever a new king was installed, one of his subjects willingly honoured the occasion by throwing himself over a precipice. In some islands, polyandry was practised; in others they were monogamous. Insult of a woman by an armed man was allegedly a capital offense.
The island of Tenerife was divided into nine small kingdoms (menceyatos), each ruled by a king or Mencey. The Mencey was the ultimate ruler of the kingdom, and at times, meetings were held between the various kings. When the Castilians invaded the Canary Islands, the southern kingdoms joined the Castilian invaders on the promise of the richer lands of the north. The Castilians betrayed them.
Guanches wore garments made from goat skins or woven from plant fibers, which have been found in the tombs of Tenerife. They had a taste for ornaments, necklaces of wood, bone and shells, worked in different designs. Beads of baked earth, cylindrical and of all shapes, with smooth or polished surfaces, mostly colored black and red, were fairly common. In his research, Dr. René Verneau suggested that the objects the Castilians referred to as pintaderas, baked clay seal-shaped objects, were used as vessels for painting the body in various colours. They manufactured rough pottery, mostly without decorations, or ornamented by making fingernail indentations.
Guanche weapons adapted to the insular environment (using wood, obsidian and stone as primary materials), with later influences from medieval European weaponry. Basic armaments in several of the islands included javelins of 1 to 2 m in length (known as Banot on Tenerife); round, polished stones; spears; maces (common in Tenerife, and known as Magado and Sunta, respectively); and shields (small in Tenerife and human-sized in Gran Canaria, where they were known as Tarja, made of Drago wood and painted with geometric shapes). After the arrival of the Europeans, Guanche nobility were known to wield large wooden swords (larger than the European two-handed type) called Magido, which were said to be very effective against both infantrymen and cavalry. Weaponry made of wood was hardened with fire. These armaments were commonly complemented with a stone or obsidian knife known as a Tabona.
Dwellings were situated in natural or artificial caves in the mountains. In areas where cave dwellings were not feasible, they built small round houses and, according to the Castilians, practiced crude fortification.