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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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Dragon Tree (Icod)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.