At the beginning of the 1980’s some strange rock inscriptions were first found on Fuerteventura, later on Lanzarote as well. “Inscriptions” may be a misleading term in this context. They are only shallow markings scratched on to hard basalt rocks.
by Werner Pichler
Hannibal was here
Rock inscriptions on the Canary islands
Nowadays it is common practice all over the world to commercialise the pre- and early history of indigenous people. In this field the tourist managers of the Canary islands have no easy task: no Stonehenge, no giant pyramids, no amphitheatre, no Palaeolithic cave with marvellous paintings.
What to do in face of a lack of such archaeological attractions? It is a well established tourist concept to resort to promoting local ancient myths.
Therefore the obvious thing to do is to highlight the numerous Atlantic myths and sagas, which have grown up around the Canary islands: for instance, the “island of the blessed”, relicts of the sunken Atlantis, the “Elysian fields” with their heavenly landscape and eternal spring. The managers of “theme parks” have heard the message: a mysterious, mythical past is conjured up – and yet it is possible to include the Canary islands into the collection of the “greatest mysteries of the world”, “the magical places of Europe” etc.
The actual facts about Canary islands’ pre-history may be disappointing for the average visitor to the archipelago. A lot of questions concerning the history of early settlement are unresolved until now.
There are still too few artefacts available which have been precisely dated using scientific methods to be able to establish an accurate timeline with regards to the Canary islands’ pre-history. There are some strong indications that there was a first wave of immigration as early as the 2nd or 3rd millennium B.C., but final proof is still lacking. Presumably these people belonged to the Cro-Magnon type and brought some elements of the megalithic cultures from SW-Europe to the islands.
The further development of the islands’ colonisation is just as uncertain. Did the highly civilized people of the ancient Mediterranean ever reach the Canary islands? The answer is with high probability – yes! But there still isn’t much proof of their presence: some off-shore findings of amphoras near Lanzarote, some metal artefacts at archaeological sites. But however, where are the presumed trading settlements of the Phoenicians or the Tartessians, of the Cretans or the Romans? Are there no inscriptions such as those in comparable regions of the neighbouring Mediterranean?
At the beginning of the 1980’s some strange rock inscriptions were first found on Fuerteventura, later on Lanzarote as well, which aroused some speculation amongst the experts. “Inscriptions” may be a misleading term in this context. These are not carefully chiselled texts like what is found on Roman triumphal arches or milestones. They are only shallow markings scratched on to hard basalt rocks. No Canary farmer or shepherd ever took notice of these “graffiti” and tourist would simply pass by without noticing them.
The first papers on the subject presented about 20 lines of inscriptions, consisting of signs which could mean anything. Small wonder that the interpretations diverged widely. Some believed they were Iberian script, others that they were neo-Punic, even Nordic runes were consulted to try to decipher the lines. The main problem of these initial attempts of interpretation was the small number of documented characters: too few for a complete alphabet.
The only way out of this dilemma was to search for further inscriptions. In 1992 the author started a research project on Fuerteventura. To search for little scratches on rock surfaces over an area of more than 1000 km², is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. It was laborious and exhausting to search thousands of rocks all over numerous mountains and barrancos, but after one year the data-base archive included 281 lines of inscription with more than 1000 individual characters. This time consuming field research was followed by several months of desk-work: the frequency of individual characters and groups of characters had to be counted, the results had to be compared with all scripts and languages of the relevant regions (Northern Africa, the Mediterranean, the Iberian Peninsula).
After a certain time there remained no doubt: it was a variant of Latin script, with characters being very similar to the Latin of the time about Christ’s birth. Many peculiarities make the reading difficult: sometimes two or three letters are combined into one, some are turned sideways, some are upside-down. Due to the typical divergences of normal Latin script, the new script was called “Latino-Canarian”. In very close context to these Latino-Canarian lines a second type of inscription was discovered, which could easily be identified as Libyco-Berber – a consonant script, which was not only used by the ancient ancestors of the present-day Berber people in North Africa, but can also be found on nearly all of the Canary islands (Fig. 1).
With these sensational discoveries a new chapter of the history of migration to the archipelago was opened. In short, at around the time of Jesus Christ’s birth, a group of Berber people sailed from North Africa to the eastern Canary islands. This proposition goes against all the declarations of Thor Heyerdahl and others who believe that this was impossible because of nautical reasons. These Berber people of course had control of their own Libyco-Berber script, but in addition they had learned Latin script from contact with Roman occupation forces in their homeland.
The subject matter of the inscriptions may in fact be trivial and disappointing for the lay public. Even for the experts it would be more thrilling and scientifically productive if we could read sentences like “we, the members of the tribe X, have landed here in the umpteenth year of the reign of king Y”. Unfortunately the lines documented and deciphered until now only consist of personal names and declarations of their descent or origin, following the formula “A., son of B.” or “A., the one from B.” (Fig. 2).
But these short lines still provide useful information for linguists. They confirm the North-African origin of these people and their adherence to the group of afroasiatic (afrasic) languages. On dozens of smooth basalt columns high up in the mountains of Fuerteventura a certain Mr. SRETAN, an IMANTAN, a TAFAN and a SELAN have immortalized themselves. All of these personal names are well documented in North African inscriptions:
SRETAN: RIL 386
IMANTAN: RIL 1047
TAFAN: RIL 368
SELAN: CIL VIII, 5189
And even a man called (H)ANIBAL was here (Fig. 3) – on the summit of Morro Pinacho (the initial H however was not written). Even though this man surely is not identical to his famous namesake, who crossed the Alps with elephants and caused the Roman empire serious problems, the scientific significance of this documentation is very high.
The last doubts concerning the correctness of the transcription of the Canarian inscriptions had to cease at the time, when an inscription was found, which presented one and the same personal name in both types of script. On a basalt rock high up on Cuchillete de Buenavista there was carved in large Latin-Canarian letters TIMAMASIR AV (=son of) MAKURAN. Only some centimetres underneath the writer once again documented his origin, but this time in Libyco-Berber letters (Fig. 4). In the meantime we know some further examples of bi-scripts. They can be interpreted in the way, that the writers declare themselves as part of the Roman culture, but at the same time are proud of their African origin.
Nearly all of these inscriptions can be found far away from the coast, deep in the heart of the island and near the top of the mountains. This fact proofs that the creators of the inscriptions were under no circumstances cursory visitors of the islands or shipwrecked people, but immigrants, who settled down for a longer time.
With these recent results of research one more detail could be added to the incomplete picture of pre- and early history of the Canary islands. How does the knowledge and use of script fit with the old belief of a stone age culture existing until the European conquest? It seems that some old clichés about the Canary islands should be discarded.
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