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Skull study Reveals Origin of Canary Island's Aboriginal People

Aboriginal people who lived on the Canary Islands before European colonisation originated from North Africa, a DNA study has found.

Close up image of seven skulls from the Canary Islands
Photo credit: David Cheskin

The findings shed new light on the history of this unique aboriginal group, known as the Guanches. 

Experts analysed genetic material extracted from a collection of ancient Guanche skulls from the University of Edinburgh’s Anatomical Museum.

Guanche People

When and how the Guanches arrived to the Canary Islands have remained poorly understood, not least since they lacked boats and the knowledge of how to navigate the surrounding seas.

When Europeans colonized the islands in the 15th century CE they discovered a culture that much resembled Late Stone Age (Neolithic) cultures from Europe and the Mediterranean.

Speculation

This has led to a great deal of speculation about the origins of the Guanches, but no conclusive answer has yet been found.

Researchers led by Stockholm University and Liverpool John Moores University found that the Guanches are most closely related to modern North Africans of Berber ancestry than to any other population included in the study. 

Previous studies on the Guanches have relied on single genetic markers, such as mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomes. These markers often lack the analytical precision needed to resolve finer levels of population history. By sequencing autosomal DNA we have gained unique insights to the ancestry and origin of these populations.

Dr Linus Girdland-FlinkSenior author of the study, Liverpool John Moores University’s School of Natural Sciences and Psychology

Stone Age

The team found that a small portion of the genetic ancestry of the Guanches was derived from populations most closely related to European Stone Age farmers.

This type of genetic ancestry was introduced to Europe from Anatolia with migrating farmers during the Neolithic expansion around 7,000 years ago, the researchers say.

Other North African populations have varying proportions of this ancestry but it is not yet fully understood how and when it spread across North Africa.

Legacy

The findings also provide new insights into the genetic legacy of the Guanches in modern Carnary Islanders. Present day inhabitants have inherited around 16-31 per cent of their genetic information from the Guanches, the study found. 

Our study gives us a fascinating insight into this unique population and we’re delighted to see our collections being used to make such an important contribution to research. It is thanks to our excellent curatorial team that we are able to give researchers from around the world access to our historic archives. We hope this will be the first of many exciting discoveries to come from the collections in our care

Professor Tom GillingwaterProfessor of Anatomy, Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences

 

The study, published in Current Biology, was funded by the Swedish Research Council.

Related Links

View publication in Current Biology journal online

Visit the Anatomy@Edinburgh website