DNA Reveals First Canary Island Settlers Were North African Berbers Centuries Before Europeans

Tenerife is probably the most well-known of the Canaries, but before its Spanish conquest, it was founded by Berbers from North Africa. Balate Dorin/Shutterstock 

Think of the Canary Islands, and you may conjure up images of pasty white (or, more likely, red) holidaymakers seeking some all-year-round Sun. But the islands themselves have a long and interesting human history that predates European settlers (and their Sun-seeking descendants) by centuries, according to a new DNA study.

The Spanish-owned archipelago – made up of the main islands of Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, and El Hierro – is located off the northwestern coast of Africa, between Morocco and Western Sahara.

Long before the Spanish conquest, the slave trade, and the rise of sugar plantations, the first people settled on the island. Previous studies had shown that the indigenous people of the Canaries were a mixture of North African, Mediterranean, and sub-Saharan African but very little was known about how those people arrived on the islands.

In the journal PLOS One, researchers reveal that the mitochondrial DNA from 50 remains across 25 sites, dated to between 150 and 1400 CE, indicates the first people to colonize the islands were North African Berbers, arriving around 100 CE, and that they settled on all seven islands by 1000 CE. Not only that, but four new lineages specific to the Canary Islands were discovered, some only seen before in Central North Africa, which has ramifications for the debate about how the first settlers arrived.

Numerous studies – genetic, anthropological, and archeological – have been made of the indigenous people of these islands to find out more about their origins. The 15th-century Spanish conquest, and the rather brutal colonization that followed, changed the genetic makeup of the people so much, it has been difficult to ascertain at what point the Mediterranean lineages appeared. This has led to a debate about whether the first people to settle on the Canaries had traveled there of their volition or had been left there by ancient Mediterranean sailors.

The researchers found that the distribution of the lineages on each island varied, depending on their distance to the mainland, which suggest multiple migration events. They also found that the presence of Mediterranean DNA in the ancient remains fits into the larger pattern of Neolithic human expansion that can be traced from the Middle East, to Africa via Europe, suggesting that the Berbers had already mixed with Mediterranean people by the time they colonized the islands. Both of these together adds weight to the argument the Berbers sailed to the Canaries themselves, explorers in their own right.

Lead author Dr Rosa Fregel, of Stanford University and Universidad de La Laguna, told the New York Times that although their findings don't explicitly show how these ancient people reached the Canaries, they do provide evidence that the migration was large and made by people who had the resources to survive on the islands.

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