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Skulls reveal origin of Canary Isles’ aboriginals

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

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 came to the Canary Islands is poorly understood, not least since they lacked the boats and expertise needed to navigate the surrounding seas.

When Europeans colonised the islands in the 15th century, they discovered a culture that resembled Late Stone Age (Neolithic) cultures in Europe.

Speculation

This has led to a great deal of speculation about the origins of the Guanches, but no conclusive answer had, until now, 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.

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-FlinkSchool of Natural Sciences and Psychology, Liverpool John Moores University
A collection of Guanche skulls displayed in the University's Anatomical Museum
A selection of Guanche skulls on display in the Skull Room of the University's Anatomical Museum. Credit David Cheskin Photography.

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 through 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 Canary Islanders. Present day inhabitants have inherited around 16-31 per cent of their genetic information from the Guanches, the study found.

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

This 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 GillingwaterHead of Anatomy, the University of Edinburgh

Anatomical Museum

The Anatomical Museum is open to the public on the last Saturday of each month. A selection of the Guanche skulls will be on special display this weekend. 

Related links

Journal article

Anatomical Museum

Anatomy at Edinburgh

Edinburgh Medical School