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Beyond the Beaches of Gran Canaria October 29, 1999
Text and Photographs By Amélie A. Walker
Map by Angela M.H. Schuster

Map of Gran Canaria

(Click on the map to explore Gran Canaria, or use the links at the bottom of this page.)

Gran Canaria, Spain, the most populated of the Canary Islands, is known for its warm climate and golden beaches. Tourists flock to its oceanfront hotels to bask in the sun. But few who visit this island 130 miles from the northwest coast of Africa are aware of its archaeological heritage. Hundreds of caves, occupied from ancient times to the present, hide in its cliffs and mountains. Burial mounds overlook the sea near the remains of stone houses which once sheltered bustling fishing communities. Before tourists came to this island--even before Europeans set foot on its soil--a group of people, most likely from North Africa, made its home there.


View of hill at interior of the island

The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79) called the island Canaria, a reference to the large wild dogs (from the Latin canis, for dog) which he reported living on the island in his 37-volume Natural History:

...[The island is] named Canaria [Gran Canaria], from its multitude of dogs of a huge size [two of these were brought back for Juba*]. [Explorers] said that in this island there are traces of buildings; that while they all have an abundant supply of fruit and of birds of every kind, Canaria also abounds in palm-groves bearing dates and in conifers; that in addition to this there is a large supply of honey, and also papryus grows in the rivers, and sheat-fish; and that these islands are plagued with the rotting carcasses of monstrous creatures that are constantly being cast ashore by the sea.

*Juba II, king of the Roman Protectorate of Mauretania in North Africa, sent an expedition to explore the Canary Islands

(Translation by H. Rackham, first published 1942)

The native canary, a small brown finch with a poor singing voice, had nothing to do with the naming of the Canary Islands. In fact, the birds received the name from the islands, their native home. The Spaniards caught canaries after the fifteenth-century conquest and brought them to the rest of the world.

In 1402 Jean de Béthencourt, a Norman knight, was sent by Henry III of Castile to take the Canary Islands. He conquered Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, but was defeated by the natives at Gran Canaria. Gran Canaria was, however, the first of the islands to be incorporated under the Spanish crown later in the fifteenth century. The sucessful conquest of the island began in 1478 when General Juan Rejón founded the city of Las Palmas--the first city founded by the Spaniards outside the Spanish mainland--in the island's northeast. The conflict lasted about five years. (See also Bentayga.)

The island became a resting and refueling station for explorers crossing the Atlantic. In 1492, Christopher Columbus stopped on Gran Canaria for repairs before proceeding to the New World. He returned on his second and fourth voyages to resupply his ships.


Los Pilars, Cave of Pillars in Telde

Each of the Canary Islands has a similar, yet distinct, culture. Though they probably came from the same general area in North Africa, each island population created its own identity, a mixture of African roots and new traditions.

We know about the native Gran Canarian culture from written accounts, oral traditions, and--more and more--archaeology. Many sites give evidence of an agrarian culture with a religious system based on fertility rites. Finds such as complex burials and organized food storage and distribution systems reveal a well-developed hierarchical society. As more study is made of the island's archaeological remains, Gran Canaria's past continues to unfold.

Next (Gáldar)


El Agujero and La Guancha



Barranco de Guayadeque

Cuatro Puertas and Nearby Sites

Balos: Lomo de los Letreros

Cenobio de Valerón

Amélie A. Walker, online editor and webmaster of ARCHAEOLOGY, thanks the Tourism Office of Gran Canaria for its assistance.