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Gran Canaria’s grains of truth: stone-age barley

January 10, 2017
The barley grown on Gran Canaria is African ratther than European

Think Gran Canaria’s a Spanish island? Well, you’d be both right and wrong. For whilst it’s indisputably politically Spanish, geographically it’s African. A recent academic study on prehistoric barley only serves to highlight the powerful connection between the island and its mother Africa.

We’re often to be found curled up at night (or indeed at any other time) with a copy of something interesting. And one of the Journal of Archaelogical Science‘s latest studies made for fascinating reading. Namely, of-Berbers-and-barley’s Farmer fidelity in the Canary Islands revealed by ancient DNA from prehistoric seeds.

1. Gran Canaria: of Berbers and barley

Enrol your child in a Gran Canaria school and their classmates are as likely to include an Aythami and an Ayoze as an Alejandro and an Andres; a Cathaysa and a Chaxiraxi as a Cecilia and Cristina. Why? Well, this is a Spanish island which embraces its Berber past.

Nobody knows for sure exactly how and when the canarii, the Amazigh-descending tribes, arrived on Gran Canaria. But everybody’s aware of when their relatively untroubled stay on the island started to come to an end. During the Castilian conquest of GC from 1478 to 1483.

One of the staple ingredients of the canarii diet though remains an essential in your average Gran Canaria larder. We’re talking gofio. The canarii used to toast barley and wheat in clay jars before grinding the cereal in hand mills fashioned out of porous basalt stones to produce a sort of flour. This is still used to add substance to soups and stews, as well as to give body to milk drunk by children in the morning and evening.

A popular savoury dish on the island is gofio escaldado. Here the cereal is scalded with boiling hot (ordinarily fish) stock and you scoop the resulting mess into your mouth using a slice of red onion. Those with a sweet tooth will prefer helado/mus de gofio (gofio ice cream/mousse).

Gofio production became larger in scale following the Spanish invasion, with water replacing hand as a means to mill. There are commercial molinos dotted throughout the island, along with more traditional ones such as the 16th-century Molino del Conde in northern GC’s Firgas. Ask Alejandra from the tourist information office next door to demonstrate the process of reducing grains to flour, said to be the secret behind the Canarians being arguably Spain’s strongest people.

Barley: Gran Canaria's prehistoric grain
Barley mown

2. Farmer Fidelity in the Canary Islands: the findings

Farmer fidelity in the Canary Islands revealed by ancient DNA from prehistoric seeds was a joint project involving academics from Spain’s University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and boffins from Linköping University in Sweden. They analyzed the DNA of ancient barley seeds found in cave granaries such as Guía‘s Cenobio de Valeron which historians once fantasized was a convent for the high priestesses of the canarii, the harimaguada. Concluding that seeds found were around 1,000 years old and a north African variety identical to that cultivated today.

Gran Canaria Local talked to one of the leading Canarian researchers, Jacob Morales-Mateos. He revealed to us that the canarii farmed the land more than the other Amazigh-descending tribes on the rest of the Canary Islands, “constructing the archipelago’s only fortified granaries”. This helped preserve the seeds and aid his team “to decipher the origin of their crops, and with it, the very origin of the aboriginal Canarians.”