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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​Have Your Checked Your DNA?

Have You Checked Your DNA?

Have any readers purchased one of those DNA test kits that have become so popular recently? Several stories in the tabloids tell of clients who have been “shocked” at discovering that their parents were not who they thought they were. I guess if you open yourself up to this kind of intimate investigation, one just has to accept the risks and take whatever is discovered.

I bought a DNA test kit shortly after the results of the 2016 EU referendum, as I was anxious to confirm my Irish heritage with a view to claiming my right to an Irish passport. All it took was a sample of saliva and a lengthy wait. The results were fascinating, and it led to discovering cousins and other relatives that I didn’t know existed. I have since met several previously unknown relatives and, for me, it was money very well spent. It has also inspired me with an ongoing interest in my own ancestry, which I heartily recommend to others.

This new DNA technology has enabled anthropologists to further investigate the origins of the original inhabitants of the Canary Islands. This archipelago, which is made up of Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Fuerteventura, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro and La Graciosa, is located off the north western coast of Africa, midway between Morocco and Western Sahara. The study of its early indigenous people has always been subject to guesswork and argument, with little real evidence to back up various conclusions; that is until DNA testing arrived.

Early studies of the indigenous people of these islands have been made difficult because of the cruel colonisation of the islands during the Spanish conquest of the 15th Century. Over the years, there has been a healthy debate as to whether the first people to settle in the Canary Islands were Mediterranean sailors or travellers from afar. These studies have suggested that the indigenous people of the Canary Islands were a mixture of Mediterranean and African people, but there is little reliable information about how these people actually arrived on the islands.

Recent DNA research by experts at Stanford University and the University of La Laguna in Tenerife suggest that the first people to settle on these islands were the Berbers from North Africa who arrived in the First Century. There are indications that other lineages from Central North Africa also settled on these islands.

This research suggests that DNA from 50 remains across 25 sites, between 150 AD and 1400 AD, can be traced from the Middle East to Africa, which indicates that the Berbers had already mixed with Mediterranean people before they colonised the islands. They had settled on all eight islands by 1000 AD. The overall conclusion is that the Berbers sailed to the Canary Islands as explorers, ready to settle and colonise these islands. Migration to these islands was significant, since these people already had the resources to survive long before the slave trade and the development of sugar plantations.

Purchasing a DNA kit can lead to fascinating and sometimes unwelcome discoveries, but one that can lead to a fascinating journey into the past. Just one word of warning; do be prepared for a few surprises.

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​Whistle While We Work

Whistle While We Work

I am often asked which of the eight inhabited Canary Islands I like best of all. I can never answer the question, because each island is different and beautiful in its own unique way. I make a point of visiting each of the islands over the year. I love them all; each have their own unique character, culture and traditions. Let me give just one example.

One of the smallest Canary Islands is La Gomera, which is currently much favoured by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. No doubt, she, like so many others, relish the peace and tranquillity of this island paradise. One of the elements of La Gomera is that it retains its own unique language, a whistled language called ‘Silbo Gomero’ (The Gomera Whistle).

‘Silbo Gomero’ is not a pointless academic exercise that the teaching of Latin is often accused of, but a true form of communication that is often used today. I recall hearing it in practical use during one of my many visits to the island. My hotel was next to a construction site, and builders were using this whistled form of communication to request additional materials, help and to give directions during the construction of a property. Its piercing shrill was unlike anything that I had heard before and I was impressed with the ease and fluency with which it was used.

La Gomera’s ancient whistling language was used by farmers and shepherds to communicate across La Gomera’s many large ravines. It is a language that consists of just two vowels and four consonants, yet the whistler is able to articulate words and phrases in Spanish or any other language.

Many believe that the language was first used by the Guanche inhabitants well before the conquest of the islands by Spain in the Fifteenth Century. Linguists regard the language with considerable interest, and some experts claim that it should be taught in general linguistics courses, because it demonstrates practically how a natural language is formed and organised.

Although ‘Silbo Gomero’ now has the status of being a UNESCO recognised form of communication, it was seriously in danger of dying out completely in the 1990s simply because children at school were told not to use the language, because “it made them sound like peasants.” In 1999, it began to be taught in schools once again in an effort to revitalise the language. This approach has been very successful and the regional Government is now considering offering courses on the language that will be taught by qualified teachers across all the islands.

Since its introduction into the education system twenty years ago, the status of the language has greatly improved. In La Gomera, it is currently taught for 30 minutes each week in primary schools, as well as the first two years of middle schools. The possibility of courses in the language being extended across all the Canary Islands is currently being considered. Whatever the decision, it is important to maintain and extend the use and understanding of ‘Silbo Gomero’ for cultural, as well as linguistic reasons. As with any language, the approach should be to learn to love the language and not to impose it.

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