Aboriginal heritage still runs through paradise island

I WAS not surprised to read a genetic study of the present day inhabitants of the Canary Islands, revealed that the natives of La Gomera — our second home for over 30 years — retain more of the aboriginal DNA that the inhabitants of the other islands.

The average throughout the archipelago is 17%; here it is 42%.

This aboriginal Guanche blood is evident in the profile of the people; many are fair-skinned and some are blue-eyed; their beauty, commented upon by the first outsiders to encounter them, can still be seen in the girls and boys of today.

The Guanches came from North Africa; they were not Arabs but Mountain Berbers, often as blonde and freckled as ourselves, migrating possibly from the first desertification of the Sahara in 6,000 BC up to the first or second century BC.

As Tim Hart, an old friend now sadly deceased, says in the first and still finest book on the island written in English, La Gomera: A Guide, “Quite apart from the geographical logic of this assumption — the Canary Current rises off Morocco and flows southwards between the island — there is a Berber tribe called Ghomerah, and on La Gomera itself the names of the villages of Agulo and Taza correspond to the Berber villages of Agulu and Tasa.”

Until the Spaniards came in the early 15th century, the islands, known to the ancients as Atlantis and The Fortunate Isles, had been lost to geographers for millennia.

The Guanches, living there from prehistory, were cut off from the world.

They clearly had a knowledge of sea-going navigation; it is likely that they first crossed to Fuerteventura, only 120km from the Moroccan coast and, over millennia, moved north to Lanzarote and south to the bigger, greener, more productive island of Gran Canaria, La Palma, Tenerife and to La Gomera and El Hierro at the end of the chain.

Having arrived on these paradise islands, the Guanches seem to have wanted to go no further: each island developed its own slightly different Neolithic culture and there was little, if any, intercourse between them. Certain customs prevailed throughout, such as the mummification of the dead, but the methodology varied.

They dwelt in caves, herding goats, gathering fruit and honey and fishing in the rich seas around them. Only on Gomera did the unique whistling language (last week’s column), develop. It remains extant, as does another unique aboriginal skill called in Spanish “Salto de Pastor” — The Shepherd’s Leap.

The ‘hastia’ is a smooth pole, up to 4m long and tipped, nowadays, with a metal spike; originally, this would have been a chipped flint.

The Guanche shepherds used it as a means of descending the rough, valley sides in great leaps. ‘Aiming’ it as they jumped, they slid down its length as it embedded in the earth or soft volcanic rock beneath.

Having landed, they would lift it, aim again and take flight once more. Thus, they could vault down the slope in a series of bounds, outpacing even the most agile goats.

The skill is much older than the advent of the Spanish language that named it. Indeed, it may have helped the natives to evade the Spaniards who came to enslave them. In the rugged mountains, they could use their ‘hastias’ to leap great distances while the Spanish, in heavy armour, huffed and puffed after them.

However, battles were fought and lost or won before the ultimate subjugation of the islands. In Gomera, the Spaniards arrived in force in 1489 and put down a rebellion with awesome brutality.

As Tim says, “All Gomero Guanches were deemed equally guilty … those over 15 were executed with great cruelty, and the children were sold into slavery.”

Last Saturday, I tried out a bit of hastia-hopping myself with my old pal Domingo at his weekend cottage/bodega/vineyard on the rim 3000ft above the Valle Gran Rey. The day was cloudy, with a chill in the air up in the hills. Domingo demonstrated the skill and, like the trapeze artist, sailed through the air with the greatest of ease.

The uniqueness of these islands never fails to fascinate me. They are Spanish; but Madrid is far nearer to Glasgow than to La Gomera.

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