When the conquest of the Canary Islands by the Crown of Castile commenced in the 15th century, the colonizers encountered not only a diverse and lush archipelago but also an enigma. The indigenous inhabitants of the islands appeared to have been frozen in time on the far side of the African continent. Only a few legends remained to attempt to decipher the origins of these people who were rediscovered by European navigators over a thousand years after their initial colonization.
In present times, our understanding of the roots of Canarian lineages has undergone substantial growth. The esteemed journal Nature has recently unveiled a study conducted by researchers from the Canary Islands, possibly one of the definitive works on their genetic heritage. Entitled “The Genomic History of the Indigenous People of the Canary Islands,” the study’s authors scrutinized the complete genomes of 40 individuals who resided on all the islands between the 3rd and 16th centuries. The objective was to fathom the process of colonization undertaken by the islands’ earliest inhabitants.
According to Rosa Fregel, a geneticist and co-author of the study from the University of La Laguna, “this wasn’t a haphazard settlement of a few individuals who accidentally arrived on the islands.” She elaborates that from an archaeological perspective, it was already known that colonization was a meticulously planned endeavor. The initial settlers brought domesticated animals and seeds for sustenance.
This research signifies the initial analysis of the complete genome of the native Canary Islanders. Priorly, scientists had concentrated on mitochondrial DNA, a small molecule reflecting maternal genes, which provided limited insights. The primary aim of this new study was to discern differences among the diverse island populations, which exhibited elements from both North African Palaeolithic and Early Neolithic, as well as European Early Neolithic periods. Several significant findings are presented below.
A notable revelation for Fregel is the disparity between islands with smaller, more secluded populations and those with larger, more diverse populations. The former group encompasses El Hierro, Lanzarote, and Fuerteventura, while the latter includes Tenerife, Gran Canaria, and La Palma, with La Gomera positioned between them.
“The populations of Tenerife and Gran Canaria were substantial enough to uphold this genetic diversity, suggesting that a considerable number of people arrived in the archipelago,” explains Fregel. She adds that subsequently, each island’s population confronted varying circumstances influenced by climate and available resources.
Canarians: similarities to the Berbers, yet distinct dialects
The genomic analysis also addresses the matter of inter-island interaction during this era, a subject debated in Canarian prehistory research. According to Fregel, European historical accounts of those arriving in the Canary Islands portrayed the populations as akin to the Berbers and speaking a similar language. However, these accounts identified them as distinct dialects, indicating a degree of isolation.
The analysis of mitochondrial DNA suggests that genetic diversity was lower on smaller, less resourced islands like El Hierro, La Gomera, Lanzarote, and Fuerteventura. This indicates isolation on these islands, as they likely did not receive external populations and probably struggled to maintain large populations. This led, over time, to a gradual decline in genetic diversity.
This research highlights that the aboriginal Canarians of North African origin remained isolated from migrations such as the Muslim invasions. This isolation rendered them a type of human reservoir, offering valuable insights into the characteristics of Africans of that time. In fact, a modern Canary Islander bears a greater genetic resemblance to a North African from that era than to a contemporary North African.
Fregel asserts that the aboriginal population of the Canary Islands provides a glimpse into the North African population during the Iron Age, presenting a picture of these populations before migrations from the Arabian Peninsula, Romans, and Phoenicians. This aids in a better comprehension of North Africa’s prehistory.
Eastern islands: closer to Europe; Western islands: greater affinity with Africa
The study also underscores the notable distinctions between the DNA of the eastern and western islands. Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, and Gran Canaria exhibit a genetic signature more aligned with the European population of that era. Conversely, the western islands—La Palma, La Gomera, Tenerife, and El Hierro—demonstrate a stronger connection with prehistoric North Africa.
Fregel acknowledges the complexity of this situation, clarifying that referring to a European population doesn’t imply that inhabitants of the western islands were North African and those of the eastern islands were European. She explains that the human genome is a mosaic of populations that have migrated within their native region. When North Africans arrived in the Canary Islands, they were already a fusion of diverse population elements, some indigenous to North Africa and others from migrating populations. This amalgamation of influences extends to both Europe and North Africa.
Throughout the 15th century, the isolation that the Canary Islands had experienced began to wane with the arrival of colonizers. Eventually, in 1496, the entire archipelago came under the jurisdiction of the Crown of Castile.
The arrival of European colonizers initiated a profound transformation in the genetic makeup of the inhabitants, leading to a radical alteration of the genetic profile of the Canarians, as Fregel emphasizes. Unlike in Latin America, where indigenous communities have preserved their language and culture, this phenomenon did not manifest in the Canary Islands due to the small population and extreme isolation. This culminated in a comprehensive genetic blending. According to the study, contemporary Canarians result from a blend of 79.7% Spanish ancestry, 17.8% indigenous origins, and 0.5% sub-Saharan components.
In response to the natural curiosity of Canarian readers about the significance of the Canarian genetic lineage, the question is redirected to the scientist, focusing on a modern descendant from La Palma, like the author of the article. The scientist posits that it’s plausible to assert that a significant portion of their genetic makeup originates from European settlers. However, an observable contribution from the aboriginal Canarian population, rooted in North Africa, is also apparent. This ancient population had to adapt to their island environment.
In the specific case of La Palma, at least based on the obtained results, it seems that maintaining adequate genetic diversity didn’t present significant challenges. The abundance of resources and vegetation on La Palma provided a favorable setting. Although their beliefs and thoughts remain largely enigmatic, the genetic legacy left by the aboriginal population of the island lives on in the present-day population of the Canary Islands.