The debate over how, when and why the Canary Islands were first populated arose in part from records made by Europeans in the 1400s, which claimed the native Canarians had no navigational skills. The texts have led scholars to wonder how the indigenous people, who consist of several different tribes such as the Guanches and Bimbapes, reached the islands. Were they brought by Romans or Carthaginians, or did they have the means and ability to sail there themselves?
“The case of the Canary Islands is of particular interest because the indigenous culture and language was lost after the European colonization, complicating our ability to know more about the past,” said Laura Botigué, an expert in North African genetics at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who was not involved in the study.
To investigate the early peopling of the Canary Islands before Europeans arrived and introduced the slave trade, Dr. Fregel and her colleagues collected nearly 50 mitochondrial genomes from remains at 25 sites. Mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from one’s mother who inherited it from their mother and so on, offer population geneticists clues to help decipher ancient human migrations. Most of the sites were radiocarbon dated between approximately 150 and 1400 C.E., although a couple of them came after post-conquest periods.
“In the Canary Islands indigenous people, we find typical North African lineages, but also some other lineages with a Mediterranean distribution, and also some lineages that are of sub-Saharan African origin,” Dr. Fregel said. That fits with the archaeological and genetic history of North Africa, she said: Previous studies have shown that by the time the Canary Islands were inhabited, Berbers from North Africa had already mixed with Mediterranean and sub-Saharan African groups.
In their analysis, the team found that some of the islands did not have much genetic diversity, whereas others had a great deal, indicating that these ancient populations may have been large. The researchers found lineages that were known only from the central part of North Africa, as well as more common lineages from other parts of North Africa, Europe and the Near East. The team also found four new lineages exclusive to Gran Canaria and two eastern islands.