I arrived in the Canary Islands at one a.m. and went straight to sleep. I couldn’t get up until twelve hours later at one p.m. I was so groggy that I could barely make my way out of the hotel room. I was so jet-lagged and nauseous that I would have willingly confessed to any past misdeeds: mistreating my potted plants, misleading my students about the importance of the Hittite Empire, etc. with only the slightest bit of threat or encouragement.
After I staggered up into the hotel restaurant three floors up for lunch, I encountered Roger and Deborah Fouts, prominent great ape activists and scientists who had spent many years working with Washoe, the original signing chimpanzee. They claimed great suffering from jet lag but, ironically, both looked as fresh and well-scrubbed as daisies. Yesterday after arriving in Las Palmas, they had walked several hours in the city and seen the sights. They recommended a nearby museum with exhibits on the extinct aborigines of the Canary Islands. It took Roger and me about thirty seconds into the conversation to start sharing our outrage at this great extinction. Roger told me about his surprise when he walked into a large room at the museum and found it filled with hundreds of skulls and some skeletons of these extinct people, the Guanches.
After much water, lunch, and sharing of outrage, I felt better and walked around the city. It was tropical and charming with some cobblestone streets, colorful old buildings, and a profusion of palm trees. (After all, it was named “Las Palmas” for a reason). Although the ocean wasn’t quite the deep blue of Fiji or the brilliant turquoise of Hawaii, it was much bluer than the blue-grey Pacific off the coast of Santa Monica or Malibu in southern California.
The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and the weather was perfect with a slight breeze blowing from the ocean. It was not surprising that over half a million tourists, mainly from Europe, come every year to this relatively small island of Gran Canaria, the third largest in the archipelago.
After briefly visiting Columbus House, I found the musuem Roger had mentioned. Despite the fact I was forewarned, I was still surprised by the skull room. Hundreds of skulls were neatly lined up in rows on shelves that spanned the entire length of the long room.
The museum also had much information about the aboriginal people, the Guanches, who first arrived in the Canary Islands about four thousand years ago and are believed to have been related to the Berbers of North Africa. These aboriginal people lived in caves and round stone buildings, used stone tools and were skilled in the making of pottery. They decorated their pottery with simple geometric motifs and buffed it to a perfect sheen with small stones. They did not use metals nor did they have a known written language.
They practised a Neolithic lifestyle. They grew grains, herded goats and kept sheep and pigs. Their clothes were simple, from the skin of sheep and goats. The local people of the island of Gran Canaria (where Las Palmas is located) also made beautifully woven knee-length skirts or kilts from palm leaves and reeds. They decorated their faces with removable tattoos in bright colors of geometric patterns similar to what they put on their pottery. They were tall, athletic, and European-looking. Some were blonde with blue eyes. They practised serial monogomy although on one small island a woman could have up to three husbands at the same time. The husbands rotated in terms of sleeping with their wife. (Clearly, a superior people!)
At the museum I bought the two English language books available on the aborigines and the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands. Since I read them both the same night, it didn’t do my profound jet-lag any good. However, I discovered, among the tragedy and sorrow of the conquest, a happy fact. Some Guanches did survive! Their culture and language did not but some of the people did. Tens of thousands were exterminated but some were taken to Spain as slaves. Ironically, hundreds were freed by the Spanish Crown (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Christopher Columbus fame) who objected to Catholics being kept as slaves, the Guanches having been converted. (It probably helped that the Guanche slaves looked European and had adopted Spanish names).
Many of these freed slaves eventually made it back to the Canary Islands. Others in the long course of the war of conquest inter-married with the invading Spaniards and probably some natives survived in the isolated parts of these extremely rugged islands. In addition, a few of the more fatalistic noblemen had actually sided with the Spanish and survived.
It took the Spaniards 94 years to conquer the Canary Islands. During that time, the remaining few aboriginal people made the leap from the Neolithic to the Renaissance. A few of the surviving Guanches who had sided with the Spanish were actually rewarded with land after the end of the conquest.
The story was bitter; the ending was tragic. But it made me feel much better to learn that a few of the aboriginal people of the Canary Islands had survived, and a very few had actually thrived – but as Spaniards, no longer culturally Guanches. There has been so much talk about change these last few years and the story of the Guanches, once again, indicates the flexibility, plasticity, and adaptibility of humans, a trait humans share with some of their monkey cousins. Unfortunately, the great apes don’t have the same flexibility in their reproductive rates in the wild with their ten year birth intervals (Sumatran orangutans) and seven year birth intervals (forest chimpanzees) to survive much change – such as the massive killings and destruction of habitat going on in Borneo and Sumatra as well as West and Central Africa.
The conference was held in Spanish that evening with no translators present. The last event was a film on bull fighting. Like the Fouts, I fled the film. For me, it was unwatchable to see the agony that the bulls suffer before they are brought down. Bull-fighting in Spain is justified in the name of “tradition”. My answer to that is that the Dayaks of Borneo have hunted human heads for centuries but nobody justifies the practice in the name of tradition.
That evening Agustin, our event facilitator, took me to one of the beaches in the city of Las Palmas. This city has one of the highest population densities in the world with half a million people living primarily in apartments and flats. At dusk the beach was extraordinarily beautiful with the twinkling lights of the city competing with the distant light of moon and stars. I went back to the hotel delighted with what I had seen but with two books to read about the past history and culture of these beautiful islands called the Canaries.
Photo is of translators Sara and Veronica, facilitator Agustin, Birute, Deborah and Roger Fouts