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The islands are estimated to be 30 million years old, relatively young by geological standards. Their existence was known, or at least postulated, in ancient times, and in his dialogues

Carbon dating has placed the earliest settlement at around 200 BC, although earlier settlement is possible. It was long suggested that Cro-Magnons, the Neolithic predecessor of

By the time the Europeans began looking around the islands in the Middle Ages, they were inhabited by a variety of tribes often hostile to one another. Tenerife alone was divided into no fewer than nine tiny fiefdoms. The Guanches relied on limited farming, herding, hunting and gathering, and the majority of them lived in caves. The first vaguely reliable account of a landing by Europeans comes in the late 13th or early 14th century, when the Genoese captain Lanzarotto Malocello came across the island that would later bear a version of his name: Lanzarote. A host of dreamers looking for the legendary Río de Oro (River of Gold) that many thought flowed into the Atlantic at about the same latitude as the Canaries, missionaries bent on rescuing souls and slavers looking to fill their holds passed by or came to stay, but it took a Portuguese-Italian mission of 1341 to finally put the Canaries on the map.

The first Europeans to attempt to conquer the Guanches were Normans from France in 1402, and the final campaigns more or less ended in 1495 under a Galician soldier of fortune. The century saw massacres, warfare and Guanches sold off wholesale into slavery, and within another century their language had all but disappeared, and the survivors had intermarried with the invaders, converted to Christianity and taken Spanish names.

Spain's control of the islands did not go unchallenged. First Moroccan troops occupied Lanzarote in 1569 and 1586, then Sir Francis Drake tried a little gunboat diplomacy off Las Palmas in 1595. A Dutch fleet reduced Las Palmas to rubble in 1599, then in 1657 the Brits under Admiral Robert Blake defeated the Spanish at Tenerife. The score: Spanish treasure fleet annihilated, British lose one ship.

Spain managed to hang on, though, and the Canaries were declared a province of Spain in 1821. Santa Cruz de Tenerife was declared the official capital, adding fuel to the already low-level bickering between Tenerife and Gran Canaria. The inhabitants of Gran Canaria demanded that the province be split into two, which it was for a short and unsuccessful period in the 1840s. Several agricultural commodities followed boom-bust cycles on the islands: sugar cane, wine and then cochineal for making dyes all had their day, followed by bananas and to a lesser extent tomatoes and potatoes. The WWI British maritime blockade of Europe destroyed the banana trade, and Canarios voted with their feet and fled the poverty at home in droves for a new life in Latin America.

The short period of hope that followed WWI was dashed when Spain fell into the chaos of civil war in 1936. In March of that year, the Spanish Republic transferred General Franco to the Canaries, under the (well founded) suspicion that he was involved in a plot to overthrow the government. Franco seized the islands in July then flew to Morocco to continue the fight, leaving the Nationalists to round up Republican sympathisers in the islands.

The Canaries suffered from the same post-war misery as Spain, and again thousands fled, although this time clandestinely and mainly to Venezuela. In the 1950s 16,000 fled, and a third of those who attempted the journey perished in leaky boats. By the early 60s, Franco decided to throw the country's doors open to sun-starved tourists. The latest and greatest boom - and the one that transformed the economy so miraculously and parts of the islands, well, less so - began. Millions of sun-seeking hedonists now flock to the islands annually.

The Canaries became a


The symbol of the Canarios' musical heritage is the timple, a ukelele-style instrument possibly introduced into the islands by Berber slaves shipped in for farm work by the Norman invaders early in the 15th century. The timple has travelled widely and been incorporated into the musical repertoire of Cuba and other Latin American countries. At traditional fiestas the instrument will accompany dances such as the isa and folía and, if you're lucky, the tajaraste, the only dance said to have been passed down from the Guanches.

The Guanches left cave paintings dating from the 13th and 14th centuries scattered around the islands, particularly in the cuevas (caves) of Barranco de Balos, Agaete, Gáldar, Belmaco, Zarza, and the Cuevas de El Julán. They mostly depict human and animal figures. It took centuries after the Spanish conquest for any artists of note to appear on the scene, but foremost among them was Gaspar de Quevedo, who painted in the 17th century. More notables from later centuries include Valentín Sanz Carta, who depicted the land in his 19th century works, and Manuel González Méndez, who was the islands' main exponent of Impressionism in the early 20th century. All the great currents of European art washed up on the Canaries. Among the abstract artists, César Manrique enjoyed a degree of international recognition. He is revered around the archipelago for his imaginative works and his tireless efforts to preserve Canary culture under the onslaught of mass tourism.

The Guanches do not appear to have known writing, but Italian historian Leonardo Torriani translated many of their ballads. Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) is considered by some to be the greatest Spanish novelist since Cervantes, and he grew up in Las Palmas and moved to Madrid in 1862. Isaac de Vega has been one of the Canaries' most outstanding novelists this century, and his novel Fetasa is a disturbing study of alienation and solitude.

Spanish, or more precisely, Castilian, is the official language of the Canaries, and only place names from Guanche survive. Roman Catholicism gained an early foothold in the islands, and although many Canarios' religious faith may be doubtful, the Church still plays an important role in people's lives. Most Canarios are baptised and have church weddings and funerals, although less than 50% regularly turn up for Sunday service.

People normally socialise in the streets, and dinner parties and gatherings in people's homes are the exception rather than the rule. Canarios enjoy Mediterranean hours, with a late morning start, a long break for lunch, siesta and family gathering from around 2 to 5 pm, and then a few more hours work before dining and more socialising well into the night.

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