Los Canarios. The Genetic Composition of the Canary Islands

Interview conducted with Alejandra C. Ordóñez from the University of La Laguna, Tenerife. September 2014

The Canary Islands are a Spanish archipelago located off the northwest coast of mainland Africa, 100 kilometres west of the southern border of Morocco. Although the existence of the Canary Islands was known from antiquity, they remained almost completely isolated until the 15th  century. Unlike the rest of the archipelagos of that region (Azores, Madeira and Cape Verde), the Canary Islands were inhabited when the European conquerors arrived. Spanish chroniclers reported that all the islands were inhabited and that the indigenous people didn’t have navigation skills, so every island people were isolated and developed their own dialects and customs. However, they reported a common cultural substrate, with great similarities to the North African Berber populations.

Although for most of the islands the European conquest started as a peaceful process, the breaking of peace treaties and the sale of aborigines as slaves, provoked riots in the Canarian indigenous population. Although the Europeans were defeated in some battles, all the revolts ended with the arrival of new Spanish troops and the subjugation of the indigenous population, decimated by disease and slavery. Regarding the number of aborigines who survived the conquest, there are differences between the islands. However, in all of them, the indigenous population participated in the repopulation process. Because of the small number of European women who were in the islands after the conquest, some aboriginal women obtained the status of colonizer by marriage. Moreover, Isabella I of Castilla developed laws to protect the indigenous population and forbade the selling of aborigines as slaves.

After the conquest, because of the low number of aboriginal people and the laws that protected them, Europeans solved the need of manpower for sugar cane plantations by importing slaves. Although some slaves came from coastal regions of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, most of were captured in sub-Saharan Africa and reached islands through the Portuguese merchants. It is also necessary to highlight the tight relationship between the Canary Islands and America. People from the Canaries travelled to America, first as conquerors, and then as settlers and workers. The destiny of the Canarians was mainly Cuba, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, Texas, Louisiana and Uruguay. Different economic and political developments in the countries of destination subsequently led to the return of entire families to the islands. The current population of the Canary Islands is then a mixture of the indigenous people that survived (of putative North African origin), the Spanish colonizers, the sub-Saharan African slaves, and in lesser extent, the American migrants. This multi-ethnic origin can be observed in the variable physical appearance of current Canary islanders.

The genetic analysis of admixed populations, as the Canary Islands, serves as a direct way to determine the contribution of each of their parental populations. The genetic studies on the current Canary Island populations have been conducted by the Department of Genetics at the University of La Laguna. These works revealed the presence in the Canarian population of two typical genetic markers associated to the Berber populations of North Africa, reinforcing the theory of North African origin of aboriginals. Moreover, European, sub-Saharan African and Amerindian markers were also detected. The most surprising result was obtained by comparing the relative contribution of every parental population for both the maternal and the paternal line. It was confirmed the existence of a strong sexual asymmetry in the survival of the North African lineages, while the maternal lineages showed a relatively high North African contribution (30%), North African paternal lineages were less than 10%. This result is in agreement with historical data about the European colonisers being mostly men. More interestingly, the island of La Gomera showed the highest North African contribution, indicating a higher aboriginal survival in this island.

In recent years, the development of molecular genetics has also allowed the direct study of archaeological material. The analysis of aboriginal remains from the islands of Tenerife and La Palma has confirmed the North African origin of the Canary Islands indigenous population. Moreover, the study of a 18th century population from the central island of Tenerife, indicated that the historical population was similar to the current one, but with a higher sub-Saharan contribution, confirming the impact of the slave trade at the time. In the same vein, the historical population presented a higher Amerindian component, due to the special place of the Canary Islands in the trade with the Americas during the 18th.

The challenge for the future lies in the analysis of a sufficient number of aboriginal samples of each island, in order to establish whether there are differences that may clarify another big question that remains unresolved: how the indigenous people came to the Canary Islands without navigation skills?

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