Guanche mummies

Guanche mummies are the intentionally desiccated remains of members of the indigenous Berber Guanche people of the Tenerife. The Guanche mummies were made during the eras prior to Spanish settlement of the area in the 15th century.[1] The methods of embalming are similar to those that were used by the Ancient Egyptians, though fewer mummies remain from the Guanche due to looting and desecration.

Archaeological record

Mummification on the Canary Islands during the Guanche period remained confined to Tenerife.[2] In Gran Canaria there is currently a debate on the true nature of the mummies of the ancient inhabitants of the island, as researchers point out that there was no real intention to mummify the deceased and that the good conservation of some of them is due rather to environmental factors.[2] In La Palma they were preserved by these environmental factors and in La Gomera, and El Hierro the existence of mummification is not verified. In Lanzarote and Fuerteventura this practice is ruled out.

The most well-preserved, and therefore the most thoroughly-studied, mummies were found on Tenerife.[3]

In 1933, the Guanche necropolis of Uchova was discovered in the municipality of San Miguel de Abona in southern Tenerife. It is estimated that it contained between 60 and 74 mummies before the cemetery was almost completely looted.[4]

Physical examination of the Guanche mummies of Tenerife found that they were quite tall. On average, the males stood 1.70 m and the females were 1.57 m in height. They were also generally of robust constitution.[5]

The oldest mummified remains of the Canary Islands are from the 3rd century AD and were found on Tenerife.[6]

Historical record

Medieval Spanish explorers arriving in the islands during the 14th century reported the Guanche buried individuals of low social status in sandy graves, while upper class members were mummified and laid to rest in secluded caves.[7] One of these mortuary caves may have held up to 1,000 mummies, however, many of these have disappeared with only 20 complete mummies left on the islands.[7] The loss of such a large amount of mummies is generally attributed to the popularity of mummia, a pharmaceutical substance created out of pulverized mummies.[1]

The Guanche had groups of males and females, working as mummification specialists, who would carry out the process according to the gender of the decedent. The Guanche culture considered these individuals unclean due to the nature of their work.[3]

Mummification process

While early explorers reported various traditions associated with Guanche mummification, there are three methods identified in modern times through scientific analysis: evisceration, preservation, and stuffing. These methods have been used in various different combinations depending on the era in which the mummy was created.[3]

In 1876, Dr. Don Gregorio Chil y Naranjo discovered several incisions in some mummies that he speculated may have been used to remove the internal organs.[3] Don Brothwell's work in 1969 confirmed that evisceration was a method used by the Guanche. Along with a team of other scientists, Brothwell conducted a pathological examination of a Guanche mummy.[7] The examination revealed that the body had been eviscerated, then the abdominal and thoracic cavities had been packed with a mud-like substance that contained the bark of a pine tree. Some sort of packing was also applied subcutaneously, but the exact make-up of this particular embalming substance is unknown.[1][7]

An examination conducted by Patrick Horne in 1991 of a mummy held at the Redpath Museum at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada revealed moss had been used to stuff the empty abdominal cavity. In addition to the moss, there were several other types of local plant that had been preserved inside the body as packing.[7]

Preservation of the outer parts of the body was normally achieved through a combination of resins and animal skin wrappings. The resins were prepared with a mixture of minerals, plants, and fats. These were spread across the body prior to allowing it to dry, either in the sun or through smoking. Finally, the deceased was wrapped in animal skins and laid to rest. The number of animal skins used in wrapping corresponded with the individual’s social status, with kings being wrapped with up to 15 skins.[3]

DNA Analysis

Additionally, haplogroup E1b1b1 has been found in an ancient Egyptian mummy excavated at the Abusir el-Meleq archaeological site in Middle Egypt, which dates from a period between the late New Kingdom and the Roman era. Fossils at the Iberomaurusian site of Ifri n'Amr or Moussa in Morocco, which have been dated to around 5,000 BCE, also carried haplotypes related to the E1b1b1b1a (E-M81) subclade. These ancient individuals bore an autochthonous Maghrebi genomic component that peaks among modern North Africans, indicating that they were ancestral to populations in the area.[14] The E1b1b haplogroup has likewise been observed in ancient Guanche fossils excavated in Gran Canaria and Tenerife on the Canary Islands, which have been radiocarbon-dated to between the 7th and 11th centuries CE. The clade-bearing individuals that were analysed for paternal DNA were inhumed at the Tenerife site, with all of these specimens found to belong to the E1b1b1b1a1 or E-M183 subclade (3/3; 100%).


  1. ^ a b c Deem, James. "Guanche Mummies". James M Deem's Mummy Tombs. Archived from the original on 31 October 2013. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
  2. ^ a b "Conrado Rodríguez-Maffiote: "Estamos en uno de los mejores momentos en cuanto a la investigación sobre la cultura guanche"". 29 May 2020. Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e Cockburn, Aidan; Eve Cockburn; Theodore A. Reyman (1998). Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures (Second ed.). University Press, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 284. ISBN 9780521589543. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  4. ^ "Un estudio recuerda el expolio de la mayor necrópolis guanche jamás hallada". European Pressphoto Agency. 31 August 2010. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  5. ^ Rodríguez-Martín, C. (2013). Guanche mummies of Tenerife (Canary Islands): conservation and scientific studies in the CRONOS Project. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 183. ISBN 978-3709165652. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  6. ^ "Las momias guanches más antiguas de Canarias se conservan en Tenerife". Canarias7. Informaciones Canarias, S.A. 8 June 2012.
  7. ^ a b c d e Horne, Patrick; Robert Ireland (1991). "Moss and a Guanche Mummy: An Unusual Utilization". The Bryologist. American Bryological and Lichenological Society. 94 (4): 407. doi:10.2307/3243832. JSTOR 3243832.