October 23, 2020

Can some barley seeds rewrite the aboriginal history of the Canaries?

Can some barley seeds rewrite the aboriginal history of the Canaries?

Can some barley seeds rewrite the aboriginal history of the Canary Islands?

The aboriginal peoples of the Canaries all descended from the same Berber ancestors who populated the archipelago some 2,000 years ago and who, later, remained without communication between them until the Conquest, each one locked up on its island. Although it is inexplicable, it is History, but … what if some barley seeds questioned everything?

It is one of the aspects that most surprises those who approach the pre-Hispanic past of the Canary Islands for the first time: How is it possible that some peoples who necessarily came to the islands by sailing from North Africa forgot that ability? Is it that century after century no one was curious to know who lived in those pieces of land that can be seen from their island, on the other side of the sea?

Not only do the chronicles written by the first European settlers say so, it is also that no archaeological evidence has been found to refute this claim: the ancient Canaries did not sail, there was no movement between islands, a gomerite did not know of the existence of the Guanches Although Teide can be seen from almost anywhere on La Gomera, not a single bimbache knew that 70 kilometers north of his land of El Hierro, on La Palma, the Benahoritas lived.

However, a work published this month in the “African Archeological Review” magazine reopens the debate on this question, with a different approach: what the archaeological record does not count, may be revealed (or at least suggested) by the DNA of a capital food in the diet of the aboriginal canaries, the barley.

The specialist in Archeobotany from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC) Jacob Morales has already published a long time ago that the farmers of the Canary Islands of the 21st century sow their fields with a whole relic: the same lineage of barley that was already in the islands before of the Conquest, the one that is conserved in several deposits, the same one that the Berber ancestors brought from the continent.

Genetically proven that the barley that is harvested in the Canary Islands is the same that was planted in the islands for the first time 2,000 years ago, Morales now makes the reverse journey with the help of the expert in Genetics from the University of Linköping (Sweden) Jenny Hagenblad.

And what does the retrospective study of the DNA of the Canarian barley say today? Well, it is a variety that separated from its continental African ancestor about 2,400 years ago; that about 1,800 years ago the barley of the rest of the islands distinguished themselves from that of Lanzarote, the oldest; and that those of Gran Canaria and Tenerife were genetically the same until 1,200 years ago.

The first conclusion almost agrees (with some anticipation) with the archaeological record, which dates the first human occupation of the Canary Islands between the 1st century BC and the 1st century AD; the second affirms that agriculture reached the archipelago through the islands closest to Africa and the third … the third is quite a surprise, because it indicates that there was communication between the two central islands of the Canary Islands until only 500 years before arrival of the Castilian, Portuguese or Norman navigators.

Jacob Morales explains to Efe that barley is a self-pollinated cereal, so that quickly the variety that is planted in one region ends up distinguishing itself from the one that is grown in another. Almost self-replicating, unless there is an exchange of seeds.

“And the seeds do not navigate,” he points out. In his opinion, the trace of the barley DNA opens a tempting hypothesis: that for centuries there was intense communication between islands in pre-Hispanic times, between those peoples that were supposedly always separated.

Morales admits that his study does not refute the archaeological account accepted to date: no evidence of trade or exchange of goods between islands has been discovered, and there is, for example, neither a remnant of Grancanarian aboriginal ceramics at a site in Tenerife nor not the other way around, remember.

But he also defends that this study on barley suggests that not everything is said in this field, that the fact that these archaeological evidence of communication between islands has not been found only means that, “that they have not been found” and that it may remain a lot of research to develop in this regard.


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