Photographer Matthieu Paley delves into Gran Canaria’s multifaceted ancient history.
National Geographic CreativeWorks
To look into the night sky from a lonely peak on Gran Canaria is to see the same whirl of stars that was reflected in the eyes of the earliest islanders, some 2,000 years ago. Now commonly known on the island as ancient Canarians, and variously believed to have been colonists, prisoners, or exiles from the ancient Berber tribes of North Africa, these profoundly isolated people spun creation myths out of the overhanging cosmic fabric.
They made gods of the sun, and moon, and sky itself, even while conjuring devils from the volcanic earth beneath their feet. Demon-dogs called tibicenas were said to dwell in high caves and craters that served as gateways to the underworld, emerging after dark to prey on livestock, or unlucky shepherds, in the clear and perfect starlight of this island.
The particular quality of this light, and the glassy transparency of that darkness, remain mostly undimmed millenia later, long after those aboriginal gods and monsters were largely vanquished by the Catholic faith of conquerors from mainland Spain. Today’s Gran Canaria is a world-class destination for stargazing, as officially recognised by UNESCO in 2018.
One factor is the island’s position at 28 degrees of latitude, explains Gauthier Dubois, a French-born astronomer who has lived and worked here for decades. This close to the equator, and this far from the poles, the stars turn with the seasons and put “the entire celestial vault” at play overhead. A lack of light pollution adds to the sparkle, says Gauthier.
The electric glow of modern human activity is mostly confined to the busy northeast corner around the capital, Las Palmas. Prevailing trade winds blow in that way, forming a localized pattern of low cloud known as the “donkey’s belly”, and discharging humid air as “horizontal rain”. This tends to keep the sky clear over inland mountains and across the lesser-inhabited south, where Gauthier deploys mobile astronomy workshops in optimal locations with his company AstroGC. “If there’s not much moonlight, we can see with the naked eye deep sky objects such as the Andromeda galaxy, Hercules, or Omega Centauri.”
With his four large-aperture telescopes – one of which he effectively built himself – he can also show clients far distant nebulae, double clusters, stellar spirals more than 30,000 light-years away, and ideally “give them the feeling that we are navigating our galaxy, literally surrounded by thousands of stars.” In March and April, Canopus rotates into especially clear view over Gran Canaria—the second-brightest star in the night sky.
For Gauthier, the act of tracking its orbit fosters a sense of humility and a spirit of inquiry that makes him feel closer to those pre-Hispanic settlers. “Who are we? Why are we here? What is our relationship to the universe? Undoubtedly, the ancient Canary Islanders asked themselves these questions. And, despite not having the means available to us today, they were able to draw maps of the sky that I find amazing.”
The evidence is etched into the soft volcanic debris of the Sacred Mountains, where arcane markers and monoliths left behind by aboriginal stargazers stand not so far from the high-tech 21st-century telescopes of the Roque Saucillo Astronomic Center, and the Temisas Observatory. Across surrounding slopes laced with hiking trails, dotted with lookout points, and planted with farms producing high-quality coffee and olive oil, there is a much older observatory at the Risco Caido archaeological complex.
An excavated cave under a parabolic dome is believed to have been a celestial calendar, lit by sunrays and moonbeams shining through an oculus. At nearby Acusa Seca, cave dwellings carved into the cliff face by fifth-century residents are still inhabited by contemporary islanders, and some can even be rented as guest houses. Ancestral villagers also painted cavern walls with the vivid geometric shapes now preserved at the Cueva Pintada site, and built a vast network of grain silos into a mountain at Cenobio de Valeron.
Archaeologists from Tibicena, an archaeology company named after those lurking demon dogs of the ancient Canarians, have unearthed whole troves of artefacts from hidden chambers in the landscape, many of which are now on display at the Museo Canario in Las Palmas. Tools, art, idols, even mummified bodies – intriguing clues that don’t quite solve the abiding mysteries of existence on this island before the Spanish arrived. Even the archipelago’s name remains enigmatic.
The “Canaries” are derived from the Latin canārius, or, “pertaining to dogs”. Gran Canaria was once Canariae Insulae, or Island of Dogs. One story tells how an early expedition from the Roman Empire encountered multitudes of huge, fierce canines on the shore. Doggy ancestors, perhaps, of the native breed, podenco canario, that farmers still use to hunt rabbits. Or maybe they were really seals, known to the Romans as “sea dogs”. Or giant lizards of the indigenous species still found here today. Or, indeed, man-eating fiends from the pagan underworld. Linguistic confusion seems more likely, as other theories suggest the original human population traced its roots to the Canarii tribe of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
Today’s islanders share a rich genetic mix of pre- and post-colonial cultures, and a visitor to Las Palmas de Gran Canaria can trace the passage from ancient to modern through the historic quarter of Vegueta. Inside the Renaissance-era governors’ mansion at Casa de Colon are charts and instruments used by seafarers and merchants, who anchored here en route to the New World. Favorable winds and currents made this port of call a boom town between Europe and the Americas, wooden treasure ships eventually giving way to cargo steamers and the cruise liners that now bring passengers to enjoy the duty-free shopping, the gofio-based fish soups and meat stews, and the coral-barrier beach at Las Canteras.
Leisure travel has its own history and tradition here, landmarks like the 19th-century Santa Catalina hotel attesting to a period when the sweet sea air itself was thought to have health-enhancing properties, and Gran Canaria became a proto-wellness retreat. Those who now come for the Carnival of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria between late Janurary and early March are partaking in a wild multi-colored, cross-cultural celebration of island heritage that dates back some 500 years.
At the same time of year, the white, bright, giant star Canopus is ascending over the festivities. And, on a clear night, the atmosphere of this island might incline the observer to believe that the great celestial gods of the ancient Canarians see everything their people have done, and all they have become, in the ocean of human time that has passed in the blink of their eye.
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