The Tenerife pyramids
In 1991, the renowned explorer Thor Heyerdahl spoke of the existence of pyramids on the Canary Islands. He had come across these monuments while he was trying to find further evidence of transoceanic contacts “BC” – Before Columbus. Of course, many immediately jumped to a “logical” conclusion: pyramids in Egypt, pyramids in Mesoamerica, and now pyramids on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, in the Canary Islands, discovered by a man who had shown that primitive boats could cross the Atlantic Ocean; connect the dots, and you have “clear evidence” of transoceanic contacts, in which the Old World apparently had told the New World to start building pyramids, stopping over on Tenerife and drop off some blueprints. However, this image, however, neat is unfortunately also likely to be too simplistic.
The best-known complex of the islands are the six step pyramids on the island of Tenerife. They are located in the town of Güímar, on the eastern shore, about 40 kilometres (24 miles) south of the capital Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The pyramids reach a maximum height of twelve metres and are part of a larger complex, that incorporates platforms and enclosures, the latter apparently used to house goats, which were offered in sacrifice and apparently smeared on sections of the complex.
The pyramids were first described by the Bethencourt family, and were reported on by Francisco Padron Hernandez, through which it came to the attention of Thor Heyerdahl.
With the international media focusing on the island, the Archaeology Department of La Laguna University carried out initial excavations and the Canary Islands’ Astrophysical Institute looked into possible ancient astronomical relationships the structures might contain. These studies revealed that the pyramids were aligned to the winter and summer solstices, once again underlining that many, if not all pyramids have an astronomical component. One section of the complex also lined up with a remarkable sunset, which occurs in a distinctive spot on the mountainous horizon: a double sunset, which means that the sun disappears behind the Anaga mountains, appears again, and finally sets a second time in a small niche that, indeed, seems to have been specifically carved out of the mountains for this purpose alone.
When we look at the pyramids individually, stairways ascend from a level plaza to the top of each pyramid, where there is a flat summit platform covered with gravel. The stairways are all on the western side, suggesting a ceremonial purpose, because someone ascending to the pyramids’ summits on the morning of the solstice would be “welcoming” the rising sun – a very religiously significant act. Descending the stairs at night would say “farewell” to the setting sun. Here, because of their location of the complex, the sun is seen to rise out of the waters, making it even more significant.
Of course, there was controversy when the discovery was announced. The “opposition” claimed that they were merely terraces or random piles of stone that had been cleared by the Spaniards – farmers. I personally encountered this mindset on the western side of the island, when exploring a pyramid complex in Icod. A local woman told us that the pyramid was merely rubble, cleared and unused by the farmers when they had created their terracing. Furthermore, since the early 1990s, some local Tenerife professors annually announce the complex is not worthy of any scientific interest; one even claimed the pyramids were the work of Freemasons – shortly afterwards, his students forced him to admit he was a Mason himself.
Some of these professors base their conclusion on the mistaken belief that during the initial excavations, it was shown that they were built on top of layers that showed signs of being used in the 18th century. The fact is that on one plaza between two pyramids, archaeologists dug down into the structure, but stopped at a level they equated with the 18th century – and which was between 50 and 150 centimetres deep. From this, the mistaken conclusion was reached that they had dug down all the way to the bottom, and had realised the oldest layer was two centuries old. Nothing can be further from the truth.
Apart from maintaining existing paradigms, there might also have been economic reasons why locals argued the complex was of no value: the land on which the pyramids stand had been earmarked for development in connection with a planned expansion in the upper part of the town and even in 1991, it was clear that archaeology and economy did not easily go hand in hand. Knowing local planning might favour straightforward tourist economic prosperity over archaeological tourism and preservation, Heyerdahl persuaded the Norwegian ship owner Fred Olsen – whose company runs ferry services between the islands – to buy the site, clean up the debris of centuries of disregard and construct a museum. This is now what is known as the “Pirámides de Güímar” Ethnographic Park; the park opened in April 1998 and in its heyday attracted 150,000 visitors per year. Today, 100,000 visitors are welcomed each year.
At the time of the Spanish conquest of the island, there was a native population on the island, now known as the Guanche. The name originates from the native term Guanchinet or Achinet, which means “man of Tenerife” (Guan means “person” and Chinet was the original name for Tenerife). They migrated to the islands sometime between 1000 and 100 BC – the dating already revealing that little is known about where they came from and how they arrived here.
For many, the pyramid culture remains to be seen as a specific culture, as if a group of people travelled around the world, catalogue in hand, and convinced native people to build a pyramid. From the 19th century onwards, pyramid construction, whether in ancient Egypt or Middle America, was often seen as beyond the intelligence of the natives, and hence required a foreign influx, in more esoteric sections of society linked with Atlantis.
But if we let go off the idea that the Guanche “could not construct such structures” and embrace the possibility that they could, we may have the easiest, most logical and correct attribution as to who built the Tenerife pyramids.
For one, it is known that the Guanche used the Chacona cave under one of the pyramids. Excavations were carried out in 1997-8 by a team of American and local archaeologists. They found an eight-metre long cave, containing remains dating from the times of the Guanche: goat and fish bones, earthenware fragments, beads from a necklace. The Beta Laboratory in Miami carbon-dating results allowed for a conclusion that the cave dated from a period between 680 and 1020 AD – before the arrival of the Spanish on the island. Of course, it is possible that the occupation of cave has nothing to do with the pyramid structure right on top, but Occam’s Razor suggests otherwise. It is nevertheless known that the cave runs deeper, but so far, no exploration has occurred.
Secondly, nearby Güímar was, until the Spanish conquest, the residence of one of the nine “menceys” (kings) of Tenerife, identifying the area as a capital. If there is one “pyramid template” that can be applied to pyramids wherever they are found in the world, it is that pyramids and kingship seem to go hand in hand.
Thirdly, a Spanish record by Fray Juan de Abreu Galindo in 1632 states the following about one Guanche practice: “They used to put plenty of stones together into a pyramidal heap, which they would build as high as using loose stones would permit them; and on those days they had dedicated to such devotions, all of them assembled there around that heap of stones, and there they would dance, sing dirges, and wrestle as well as perform other challenges they used to have for recreation; and these were their festivities of devotion.” Or, in short, Tenerifian “Olympic” games, whereby sports were seen as a sign of religious devotion and which, like in Greece, and to some extent the “sporting activities” of the Heb Sed festival in ancient Egypt, occurred within the sacred precincts.
The sporting festivities referred to were likely to be the beñesmen, held after the harvest – even though, of course, it is clear from the alignments at Güímar that the complex was in constant use. Indeed, another account states: “They would in the year (which they counted by lunations) assemble together on many occasions; and the king who ruled at that time would offer them meats, gofio, milk and lard,… and here each one would display his valour and give thanks by making a show of leaping, running, dancing, wrestling and other things they could contrive.”
Where did the Guanche come from? Many believe – based on similarities in ceramics and language – that they are Berbers, and came from the nearby African continent, specifically Libya. The only means of getting to the Canary Islands was by boat – even though the Guanche, at the time of the Spanish conquest of the island, were said not have any knowledge of seafaring. As such, some academics favoured the possibility of a land bridge, which might have existed at one time in the past, but later, this possibility was invalidated. Today, it is known that only boats could have brought the Guanche here and it is therefore clear that over time, they lost their seafaring capability.
Much of the Guanche culture apparently focused on burial. Caves across the island – many of them now walled off – were used to bury the dead. And the Guanche mummified certain members of society. The mummification process consisted of first washing the body, then after this, a liquid made up of melted animal, lard, heather and rock dust, pine barks and herbs was inserted into the body through the mouth. After fifteen days, the body was left to dry in the sun, upon which it was wrapped in skins and left on a block of tea wood in a cave. The mummies were buried with their possessions, particularly their pintadera, a person’s unique wooden seal worn on a leather thong necklace and thought to be useful in the afterlife.
But, again, where did the Guanche come from? In the fourth book of “Melpomene”, the Greek historian Herodotus reports that Phoenician explorers had made a round trip of Africa around 600 BC, on behalf of Egyptian Pharaoh Nekau (Necho). It is believed the Phoenicians actually knew of the islands earlier, at some point between 1100 and 800 BC. Interestingly, the famous medical anatomist Elliot Grafton Smith has reported on the discovery of a Guanche mummy that had been subjected to typically Egyptian mummification procedures, which he identified as conforming to those used during the 26th Dynasty – the era when the Phoenicians circumnavigated Africa. Could it be that a mixture of Phoenician-Egyptians introduced mummification on the island? Or even settled there – and that, centuries later, these were identified as the Guanches? Knowing that the Guanche, at the time of their arrival on the islands, had to be a seafaring culture, the Phoenicians definitely fit that requirement par excellence.
The Guanche were an interesting culture. Believed to have been primarily hunter-gatherers, they nevertheless did domesticate goat and sheep and wore a tamarco, a large goatskin fastened with fish bones and thorns. Though there was nobility, it was believed that this status was not attained through birth, but as a result of personal qualities or accomplishments. Each tribe had three classes: the monarchy, the nobility and the rest of the population, consisting mainly of peasants, craftsmen and goatherds. The rank of nobility bestowed the right to grow long hair, as well as apparently the right or possibility of having your body mummified upon death. Some cave systems seem to have been specifically reserved for the nobility, though it is assumed that the Guanche lived in caves too.
Interestingly, especially for those who see in the Guanches a link with the lost civilisation of Atlantis, the island was divided into ten kingdoms. The names of these kingdoms (meneceyatos) survive in modern place names: Anaga, Tegueste, Tacoronte, Taoro, Icod, Adeje, Abona and Güímar. The area around the volcanic peak of El Teide, in the centre of the island, consisted of common pasture fields. From there, the nine kingdoms radiated out – again, in parallel with how the kingdoms of Atlantis were said to be organised.
Little is known about Guanche religion. It is known that they worshipped the volcanic mountain Teide, rising to a majestic height of 3718 metres and dominating the island – if visible. It is often surrounded by clouds; the damp and misty pine forests below were even used as a backdrop for some scenes of the Star Wars movies.
They worshipped a single god, Achaman (or Aborac, or Acoran), to whom animal sacrifices and libations were made and whose physical manifestation was the sun. This, of course, ties in with the archaeological evidence uncovered in Güímar, where evidence of goat sacrifice is known to have occurred, and where important solar alignments were incorporated into the complex’s structure.
Achaman’s opposite number was Guayota, a devil that dwelt in hell, Echeyde, within the crater of Mount Teide and who was punished for his misdeeds through volcanic eruptions.
This mythology underlines that, whoever precisely the Guanches were, their mythology contains components that have been found in so many civilisations across the world and which seems to date back to Mankind’s earliest origins.
The Dragon Tree (Icod)
For 99% of the people, Tenerife pyramids equal Güímar, even though in the complex itself, some photographs are displayed that show other pyramids on the island, as well as on the other Canary island of La Palma. It was British ex-pat Steve Andrews who wrote to me, stating that he had discovered pyramids on the western side of the island, and referred me to a number of articles he had written for one of the local English newspapers, Tenerife News.
The pyramid complexes that formed part of his discovery came in three clusters: one in San Marcos, part of Icod de los Vinos, where one pyramid, La Suerte, was known to exist. The area is known to have been important to the Guanche; Icod was one of Tenerife’s largest Guanche settlements when the Europeans arrived on the island. A six-hundred year old dragon tree – still a tourist highlight – was used as the site where the local Guanche kings – or parliament – were said to gather. The “Drago Milenario” is 17 metres high and has a diameter of six metres. The species is “Dracaena draco” and has barely evolved since the time of the dinosaurs. The tree has a curious form, growing like a bundle of separate trunks clinging together before bursting asunder to create the drago’s distinctive mushroom shape. The drago’s resin turns red as blood on contact with the air and it is suspected that the drago was worshipped by the Guanche, who are known to have used its resin for embalming. The Guanche also used the red rubbery sap in healing salves. The tree was also said to foretell the future – a fine blossom pointed to a fine harvest. Could it have been the local edition of another world-wide phenomenon: the World Tree, which was said to have its roots going down into the Underworld and reach all the way into the Heavens? It might certainly explain why it was used as a site used for parliament.
Nearby, as one descends towards the sea, near the bay of San Marcos, are walled-off caves, which are known to have been used by the Guanche. Below is a small chapel, where the statue participates in the John the Baptist festival, where goats and other animals are driven into the sea, and the statues themselves were said to be placed on a boat and sailed. The festival of the Baptist is of course June 24, and linked with the summer solstice. Are these Christian traditions – quite unique to the islands – remains of an indigenous pagan cult?
In isolation, the answer might be a perhaps or a sceptical no. But near Güímar is further evidence that suggests it might be a yes. At Candelaria is a seaside cave, which is linked with the transition of the Guanche to the Spanish religion. The legend told by early Spanish settlers – though not the Guanche – is that over a century before the arrival of the Spanish, the Guanche found a statue of the Virgin and Child, which they set up in a seaside cave, which is understood to have been sacred to them. A multitude of legends claim the statue worked miracles to prevent the Guanche from harming her, and eventually, they worshipped the figure, and called her Chaxiraxi. It was apparently at this location that the local mencey of the Guanche later welcomed the Spanish, but legend has it that the Guanche were already Christians as such, as they worshipped the statue.
Some believe that if the story of the Chaxiraxi was true, it was likely from the prow of a wrecked ship, washing up here in 1390s. The present statue, on display in the church of Candelaria, dates from ca. 1830, and what became of the Chaxiraxi itself is unknown. Even before the Spanish arrived, a European living on Fuerteventura is said to have stolen the statue, but replaced it with another. The original, or its copy, was damaged by fire in 1789 and repaired or replaced. That statue was washed out to sea and lost in 1826, being replaced with the present version.
Whatever the statue’s chequered past, here we have another seaside location – a cave – linked with a Christian statue. And though setting a statue of the saint/god afloat on the sea is indeed a Christian tradition, there are also pagan examples – e.g. in ancient Egypt – that predate Christianity.
But back to Icod: the best-known and most impressive pyramid here is La Suerte, as it is well preserved. There remain sharp corners on the pyramid’s side and one of the exposed sides suggests that there might have been a cave entrance – like the Güímar complex. The pyramid is not freestanding; on one side, there is a pyramid-like structure built against the slope, from which easy access to the top of the pyramid is gained. From here, the sea is visible, while El Teide rises majestically against the eastern horizon. A spectacular sight if ever there was one.
But there is another pyramid nearby, in a worse state of preservation. According to a local woman, who came out to express her opinion, these were of no interest whatsoever: rubbish left by farmers or gardeners when creating their terraces. Still, from here, the sea and El Teide is visible and noting that on Tenerife, all pyramids seem to come in complexes, it is more than likely this is a genuine pyramid – though no interest from archaeologists has been shown in it.
Nearby, in the direction of Puerto de la Cruz, is the complex of Santa Bárbara, which has a few partially destroyed pyramids and two quite well preserved ones. One pyramid is mainly destroyed as a road was constructed through it. The best-preserved pyramid actually has five sides – a photograph is on display in the Güímar complex museum. Between the two pyramids are two thick walls. At first, they appear to be “just” another terraced wall, but upon closer inspection, the question does indeed need to be asked – as Andrews has – whether there might be something more to these walls. First of all, they roughly link the two pyramids and both of them have the terracing that typifies the pyramids of Santa Bárbara and San Marcos – the terraces at Güímar are slightly wider. They are most reminiscent of the ball courts that are part of the Mexican pyramid complexes, but whether the Guanche even had a ball-game is an impossible to answer question. Of course, a walled-off area could have a myriad of purposes. But we know, of course, from early Spanish accounts, that sports were practiced, and sacrificial animals kept. So the structure might have had a purpose for either, or both. A third – very small – complex, consisting largely of one small pyramid and a potential platform can be found at Santo Domingo, between Icod and Puerto de la Cruz.
Andrews had observed that both the Santa Bárbara and San Marcos complexes looked out both to the volcanic El Teide and the sea – the elements fire and water. Güímar “dominated” the eastern side of the island – sunrise – and these two complexes the western part – sunset. Andrews also wanted to show me a complex, not necessarily of pyramids but more of mounds or cairns, near Guía de Isora, on the southwestern side of the island. Here, only one cairn could be described as a potential pyramid, but from the site, again, El Teide and the sea could be seen. The question was whether this was a traditional cairn complex, which are often located next to ancient routes – like here – or a potential “pyramid complex”, despite the inferior execution of the constructions. I had noted that from Güímar, the Güímar volcano could be seen as a stand-alone hill very close to the shore. In fact, there is something of an alignment between the indent in the mountains through which the double sunset occurs, the line of the platform temples of that part of the complex, and the Güímar volcano. The same applied to the complex of Santa Bárbara/San Marcos, where Montaña de Taco occupied a similar position in the distance: a roughly conical hill close to the sea. At Guía de Isora, there was the same “template”: the proximity of a conical, stand-alone hill near the shore (Tejina), and – from parts of the complex – visibility to El Teide.
Guía de Isora
In short, it was clear that three sites conformed to a clear framework, and from this, certain predictions could be made. For example, that if there were other complexes somewhere on the island, one likely location was in the south, where there is another conically shaped hill, Montaña Roja, near El Médano (and the airport Tenerife Sur). Could it be that there were four complexes, one for each of the cardinal positions? Or did each kingdom have such a complex – in which case a potential nine such pyramid complexes could exist on the island.
Other pyramid complexes are known to have existed near Puerto de la Cruz, another Guanche kingdom, but these have been destroyed. A pyramid existed at Punta Brava, west of Puerto de la Cruz, near the shoreline. Photographs of this structure exist, but the structure itself has been destroyed (the Güímar complex is the only complex protected by law). The same fate befell the pyramid of La Orotava, not too far above Puerto de la Cruz. Here too, there is a conically shaped hill, and, most interestingly, El Teide rises above the surrounding plateau, forming a perfect pyramid shape. Indeed, from many locations on the island, Teide forms the central “cone” – and pyramid shaped at that – of the island. Could it be that from here, several “sightlines” ran to the conically shaped hills near the shore? Knowing this is how the Guanche organised their kingdoms, that they incorporated this into the layout of their sacred precincts, should not at all come as a surprise – and has already been shown to be the case at Güímar.
It is, however, less known that there are also pyramids on other Canary Islands, specifically La Palma. There is the pyramid del Barrio, El Paso, and the El Guincho and La Polvasera, at Breña Baja.
However, the lava pyramid/platform complexes that are “typical” of the Canary Islands, are also found on another volcanic island, Sicily, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, off the southern tip of Italy. In the valley of the river Alcantara, on the northern slopes of Etna, in the province of Catania, are at least ten pyramids and all have the same structure. They are as high as ten meters and twenty to thirty metres wide, are composed of dark volcanic stones neatly positioned – just like on Tenerife.
In Sicily too, historians argue these pyramids were simple observation posts, built between the 16th and 19th century. It is said that landowners sat or stood here, to oversee their workforce working below. If that were the case, it is no doubt divine providence that has meant that these structures are orientated towards the cardinal points.
Emiliano Bethencourt, Francisco De Luc and Francisco Perera in their book “Las Pirámides de Canarias y el Valle Sagrado de Güímar” have also underlined that the type of pyramids encountered in the Canary islands is also known to have existed in Sicily (in the province Catania) and in Oued el Agial (Libya). Indeed, the structures are so identical, that a common origin needs to be argued for.
Both Sicily and Tenerife are volcanic islands and perhaps the inhabitants of both islands worshipped their volcanic cone identically. But for this reality to have occurred, it means that there must have been an exchange of ideas, or a common origin, between the two cultures. And for this, a boat is once again required. Noting that they are believed to have been a native culture from Libya (though the Phoenician origins should not be discounted), Sicily was but a short hop in a different direction. Could it therefore be that one wave went towards the Canary Islands, and another to Sicily? If we could still ask Thor Heyerdahl, he would no doubt immediately agree it is a possibility and should be considered. For the conservative archaeologists, it will likely take several more decades to arrive at this conclusion.