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Speculation about the first population on Fuerteventura.
It is well documented and common knowledge that the Majos (or Maxos) were inhabiting Fuerteventura when the Europeans were setting foot on Fuerteventura, between the 14th and 15th century AD. But there are data – although scarcely – that indicate that the first population of Fuerteventura began a lot earlier, and even potentially by the Phoenicians during their search for purple dye. This article does not claim to be a scientific document about the first settlers on Fuerteventura, but merely an entertaining collage of available data, personal interpretation and some fiction.
Climatic conditions and their influence on civilisation.
The ancient civilisations were heavily dependent on general and local climatic conditions and the variations thereof, due to obvious influences on harvest, potable water for cattle and themselves and housing. Therefore many – if not all – major initiatives of civilisations and their rulers – technology, culture, migrations, war – are tightly linked to slow or sudden changes in climate.
The major ancient civilisations gathered around the Mediterranean Sea and Mesopotamia for the abundance of water and favourable climatic conditions. In the 12th century BC a series of major droughts afflict the Eastern Mediterranean area and these might have resulted in the Late Bronze Age Collapse, leaving within a period of about 50 years almost all significant ancient cities in the area from modern Greece till Egypt in total destruction. The story of Troy is to be placed in this time frame. This devastation results in a disintegration of all social structures for the coming 2-3 centuries as the basis of those civilisations – sedentary farming – is abandoned and replaced by nomadic pastoralism.
As from the 9th century BC the dry climate changes to a Sub-Atlantic – a warmer and moister weather system – which results in increased prosperity and new developments in the areas around the Mediterranean. The Ancient Rome period begins with the founding of Rome in 753 BC and the Athenian Democracy started in Greece in 508 BC.
The Phoenicians, a maritime trading culture and survivors amongst chaos.
In his “History”, written in the 5th century BC, Herodotus mentions the origin of the Phoenicians to be from the Erithraean Sea and more specifically, from Bahrain.
The Phoenicians were not a well defined population with a well-defined country area, but more a collection of entrepreneurial groups – located in city-states – who focused on acquiring goods from some places and selling them in others, mainly in the surrounding empires like the Hittites and the Egyptians. The Phoenicians spread across the Mediterranean area from 1.500BC till 300BC and were mainly located on the coastline of modern Lebanon, Israel, and Syria. They founded colonies in the rest of the Mediterranean area, even till Morocco and Spain.
The Phoenicians used a man-powered sailing ship and are credited with the invention of the bireme, a vessel with two rows of oars – one on top of the other.
They were famed by the Romans and the Greeks as “traders in purple”, as they had the monopoly of the precious red-purple dye of the Murex snail, used for royal, ceremonial and high-society clothing. Phoenicia means “Land of Purple” in Greek. They also invented the alphabet which they spread around during their trips.
Their high point of culture and prosperity is to be located between 1200 – 800BC and began with the downfall of the Mycenaean, Hittite and Egyptian empires in the so-called Late Bronze Age Collapse where they took over the power vacuum in the adjacent empires, creating maritime cities. (One can see the same kind of transformation from empires into isolated city-states again after the fall of the Roman Empire which will lead to the Middle-Age feudal city-states.) The Phoenician society was based on three powers: the king, the priests and their temples, and the council of elders. This cultural element is of importance, as we will see later on.
The city of Byblos, in the North of modern Lebanon, becomes the first centre of power from where they dominated the Mediterranean and Eritrean (Red) Sea. Later the cities of Tyre and Sidon followed and increased their power, so that sometimes the Phoenicians were called Tyrians or Sidonians, depending on which city-state had the ruling.
The Phoenician influence on the Eastern Mediterranean area has been reduced after the conquer by Cyrus the Great in 539 BC. It is believed that much of the Phoenician population migrated to Carthage, which was left unconquered. From here, the Phoenicians kept on controlling purple dye, iron ore and precious metals till Rome destroyed it in 146 BC.
The Romans eventually took over this lucrative business in purple dye, as in 2012 archaeological excavations on Lobos revealed a Roman settlement that specifically was erected to extract the dye from local snails. The provisional dating of the site, which seems to have been inhabited for at least a season of 6 months, is 1st BC – 1st AD. At the site were found so far about 70.000 shells.
The Phoenicians, a multinational trading activity avant-la-lettre.
There is almost no quality product in which the Phoenicians didn’t trade : fine linen, cotton, coral, emeralds, rubies, wine, wool, corn, honey, balm, (olive)oil, spices, cassia, frankincense, cinnamon, ladanum, gold, silver, tin, copper, lead, ivory, ebony, horses, mules, brass, jewellery, glass, mirrors, carpets, pearls, papyrus, pottery, slaves and last but not least at all: purple dye.
The Phoenicians traded at first with the Greeks. Merchandise was wood, glass, slaves and Tyrian purple, a violet-purple garment dye for the elite, and derived from the Murex sea-snail. It was abundant in the coastal waters of the eastern Mediterranean, but even then became almost extinct due to over-exploitation. In order to keep the income stream ongoing and to maintain their monopoly, they initiated a multitude of expeditions to find and develop alternatives. Hence the fierce hunt for purple dyes which resulted in a second centre for dye production in Mogador (Essaouira in modern Morocco). One will not construct a production centre that far out if you’re not in the middle of a profitable area. To Egypt they sold cedar wood and wine and from them they bought gold. Spain delivered Tin and Silver.
In order to continue to position themselves as the “trader of all trades”, they established commercial outposts to collect and prepare goods for transport and to develop point-of-sales for their goods. They sent expeditions to discover new opportunities and one of these expeditions was run by Hanno the Navigator (6th-5th century BC) who explored and colonised the Atlantic coast of Africa till what is believed to be the Gulf of Guinea. During this expedition, they must have visited the Canarian archipelago because they knew about their existence, as one can see the mount Teide on very clear days from some elevated points of the Moroccan coast.
Here is a part of the story about Hanno’s expedition, written by Herodotus (480–425 BC):
“The Carthaginians tell us that they trade with a race of men who live in a part of Libya beyond the Pillars of Herakles (Strait of Gibraltar). On reaching this country, they unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing the smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; and if they think it presents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides; the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away.”
Purple Dye: the Murex snail.
The Murex is a medium sized, predatory tropical sea snail. Oldest fossil records date from about 125 Million years ago.
The Murex is solely an Indo-Pacific genus and the sea snail that can be found in the Mediterranean is to be placed in the genus Haustellum. Both produce the purple dye, but other genuses make similar types of dye. The Hexaplex trunculus and the Haustellum brandaris can be found on Western Morocco and the Canary Islands and produces the indigo dye whereas the Bolinus brandaris produces the purple-red dye. Another red-purple dye-producing genus is the Dog Whelk (Nucella lapillus) that can be found on rocky estuarine waters of the Atlantic coast.
The dye – which was at that time called Tyrian purple, Tyrian red, royal purple, imperial purple – was used in ancient times in royal robes, ceremonial and ritual garments and garments for high-ranked people.
It was highly valued as it did not fade in sunlight – on the contrary, it became even brighter and could change slightly in hue. Because the production process was difficult and labour intensive, its prize was very high. It became soon a status symbol and its use was restricted to the “Happy Few”.
The dye substance, an organo-bromine compound, was used by the snails to sedate their prey and to protect their eggs or themselves. The amount of secretion per snail is minimal, needing about 12.000 snails to generate 1,4g of pure dye.
The production was labour intensive, needing to extract the gland that produces the dye, let it soak for three days and let it decompose, then boil it with moderate heat for ten days after which the textile (wool) is soaked in the hot juice for about 5 hours and eventually this soaking process is repeated till the colour is satisfactory. The decomposition phase generated such a horrible smell and penetrated the skin of dyers so persistently that – according to an ancient Egyptian chronicle – the Talmud specifically granted women the right to divorce any husband who became a dyer after marriage! Women’s rights 3.000 years ago!
The Phoenicians, the first visitors of Fuerteventura?
The Phoenicians were very skilled in building seaworthy ships and have improved existing concepts and even have developed ships with new concepts. They developed the bi- and triremes, sailing ships with two or three rows of oars on each side. One row counted 15-25 men. With this innovation, they no longer were solely dependent on the direction of the wind, but could aim at any place they had planned. They had two types of ships: a war ship and a merchant ship.
The latter ones were of a broad, round construction with one mast and one square sail. Furthermore they could bring their ships relatively easy ashore on sandy beaches when heavy weather was expected, and bring them back into the water afterwards. Also very important is that those ships were able to move against the direction of the wind and the current, as they also were powered by men. The currents around the Canary Islands tend to lead boats southwest and west, past the archipelago and into the Atlantic. Previous civilisations, like the North African Berber tribes, did not have these “steering and power” facilities on their boats. The Phoenicians knew about the use of the polar star for navigation and most probably created log books and maps during their expeditions. Unfortunately for us, because of secrecy, these maps and log books were kept hidden and the copies of expeditions were edited in such a way that no one could extract useful information for replay.
Hanno the Navigator was such an explorer, originating from Carthage. After the fall of the Phoenician power in the East Mediterranean by the conquer of Cyrus the Great in 539 BC, the remaining Phoenician population migrated to Carthage, the only colony that was not conquered. From here they started initiatives to compensate for the loss. Between the 6th or 5th century BC, Hanno sailed out with 60 ships to explore and colonise the western coast of Africa. He founded or re-populated seven colonies in what is now Morocco. The expeditions to the West African coast had as objective the purchase of ivory and elephant, lion, leopard and deer skins. On their way to this place, they could heave stopped over to Lanzarote and Fuerteventura in search for opportunities – in this case dye from local molluscs and from the Orchille, a plant that produces a reddish colour. Upon finding these opportunities, they certainly could not halt the expedition to get enough sellable material and thus the evident decision could have been to drop some settlers who collected the raw material, prepared it for the next transport and sold it for other goods. A settlement of 20 – 30 people would have been enough to achieve the task and would be able to survive in the primitive conditions and scarce water supply.
According to Pliny the Elder – a notorious historian of the 1st century AD – Hanno the Navigator visited the archipelago but found it uninhabited, although he saw ruins of great buildings. If this represents correctly the situation that Hanno found, then earlier settlements must have been the case.
King Hiram I, the Phoenician King of Tyre who reigned from 980 – 947 BC and under whom the city Tyre – a satellite to Sidon – became the most important city, became the owner of a large trading empire due to his political and entrepreneurial skills. The empire reached from the Eritrean Sea, Mesopotamia, Arabia, Egypt and Northern Africa. This kind of personality certainly would have ordered to explore beyond known boundaries and thus may have contributed to the first population of the archipelago, and in more detail of Fuerteventura. Furthermore, he suppressed a rebellion in the first Tyrean colony in Northern Africa and maybe transported the rebels to the archipelago during a next expedition. (Why killing people, knowledgeable of producing precious dye? Better to drop them where they can be useful and pose no threat anymore.) This would fit with some findings on Fuerteventura, described later in this article.
What is well documented is the transport of North African prisoners – opponents to the Roman Empire – to the Canary Islands in 50 – 0 BC by King Juba II of Numidia, a loyal to Rome. He also ordered the re-opening of the dye facility in Mogador (Essaouira in modern Morocco) and the exploration of the Canary Islands. This would fit with the recent archaeological discovery on Lobos – a milestone in local history.
Who dropped the goat?
Fact is that a goat bone has been found on Fuerteventura that has been dated to be about 3.000 years old by the C14 method. And it could not have been only one goat as statistically the probability that one would find just that goat is equal to almost nil. So, there must have been already a lot of goats running around the island to be able to find the remnants of this one by chance. However, this finding does not imply that Fuerteventura would have been populated from then on. But someone must have dropped a first goat on the island, even if it only was as an insurance for harsher times or calamities. The question is “who would have been able to drop that first goat there?” If we count back, then that goat must have been dropped on Fuerteventura somewhere around 1000 BC. This co-insides with the high-point of the Phoenician culture and sea power under Hiram I, the entrepreneurial King.
Who engraved the image of the Phoenician ship?
In the Barranco of Tinojay, one can see a lot of ancient engravings of naval ships. One of them is supposed to depict the silhouette of a Phoenician ship. The barranco provided water, food and shelter and was most probably home to the local population. From here they saw ships passing by and even get ashore, in search for food and water. Close to this barranco are two potential landing sites that still can be visited: El Jablito and Playa de los Valdivias.
Migration by deportation.
Migration of individuals, small groups or even entire populations has been of all times. The major reason for these migrations always was the expectation to improve the situation, compared to the one that was left behind: famine, drought, epidemics, conflicts, war. It also required some skills and persistence to achieve the objective.
The dominant wind directions and the prevailing currents around the Canary archipelago seem to eliminate the possibility of bold expeditions of primitive groups of individuals, as they would not reach their goal or survive the trip. The need for appropriate equipment, navigation techniques and sailing skills points towards initiatives of a population of considerable cultural and technological level. However, the lack of discoveries (till today) of testimonies of such a higher civilisation level on the archipelago, only points to a primitive civilisation. This contradiction can only be resolved, assuming transportation of individuals with a simpler level of cultural development by a more developed organisation – deportation. This kind of immigration could have been – and most probably was – in several waves, the next wave maybe annihilating the influences of the previous one(s), including genetic imprints.
(A common tendency of immigration waves is that the more recent ones are higher in number of individuals, thus the competition between residents and newcomers will be in favour of the latter ones, most of the time, especially amongst males. We see this dynamic in the genetic influence of the last major immigration by the European colonisation: the female indigenous lineages seem to keep up till today in contrast with the male lineages, which have been almost completely substituted by European lineages.)
Other elements of importance.
It was quite usual for basic ancient civilisations to re-use any former construction material, farming tools and weapons for actual or new purposes, due to its scarcity. Therefore it is frequently the case that one cannot find any traces back from previous cultures. Hence the possibility that one wave of immigration has completely wiped out any trace of a previous wave.
The decoration of pottery of the Maxos showed geometric designs that are similar to the ones of the Phoenicians, although these designs are also found in other civilisations. (Maybe because the Phoenicians introduced these designs around the entire Mediterranean).
The fact that Hanno the Navigator didn’t meet with people on the Canary Islands during his trip, does not mean these islands were inhabited. Even Gadifer de la Salle, the expedition companion of Jean de Bethencourt in the 15th century AD, had a hard time in the beginning to find inhabitants on Fuerteventura. Primitive people tend to hide out of fear when unknown creatures show up in impressive boats.
The society structure of the Maxos is quite identical to that of the ancient Phoenicians: king, priest and council of elders. On the other hand this structure is not exclusive to the Phoenicians.
Evidence shows that the inter-insular contacts between the inhabitants of the individual islands was low, so important migration from one island to a neighbouring one can be excluded.
The curiosity, boldness, inventiveness and cruelty of the ancient population around the Mediterranean Sea should never be underestimated when power and wealth is at stake. No hurdle seems to be too difficult to take, no destination seems to be too far to travel to. The main criteria is “What can I get out of it?” When a location can offer a very positive answer to this question, then it will become a major destination, otherwise – at best, it only will be a tool to achieve the ultimate goal.
The Canary Islands seem to have been visited for the first time a couple of thousand years ago, and they have not been classified as a place that offers a vast amount of opportunities, but – due to scarce materials of interest – more as a temporary stop-over to replenish exhausted foodstuffs or to unload unwanted elements. Nevertheless, this does not reduce the importance of archaeological findings; it only puts the importance of the Canary Islands in that time frame into perspective.
A hypothesis – based on the facts mentioned above and on some free but not silly imagination from my side – is that Fuerteventura has been visited in ancient times in at least three important waves:
1st wave: under initiative of King Hiram I (980 – 947 BC), the entrepreneurial King, major expeditions to discover new opportunities took place, even beyond the modern Strait of Gibraltar. Fuerteventura was then discovered and later potentially used as exile for the rebels of a Phoenician colony in Northern Africa.
This would explain the 3.000 years old goat bone.
2nd wave: after the fall of the Phoenician civilisation in the Eastern Mediterranean in 539 BC, the remaining Phoenician civilisation migrated to Carthage and set up major expeditions to West Africa to compensate for the loss. Hanno the Navigator visited the archipelago during his quest with 60 ships, but found it uninhabited, although he discovered ruins. Probably he left some colonists behind to extract dye from the local molluscs, before he moved on.
3rd wave: after the fall of Carthage in 146 BC, King Juba II of Numidia (50 – 0 BC) ordered to re-install the dye facility in Mogador (Essaouira in modern Morocco), to transport North African prisoners to the Canary Islands and to explore the islands. This would fit with the recent archaeological discovery on Lobos.
Source: Herodotus of Halicarnassus: “History”; Greek periplus: “The Voyage of Hanno, commander of the Carthaginians”; Fernand Braudel: “The perspective of the World”; Pliny the Elder; Fregel Rosa: “Demographic history of Canary Islands male gene-pool”; Wikipedia.