22 May 2016

History, Part 1 : Bimbache


The Canaries are somewhere people come to but not somewhere people go from. Today we come for holidays or to retire, or to run away from something, but very few islanders leave ... voluntarily. Some time two thousand years ago, or perhaps a little longer, it was just the same. The original inhabitants came from North Africa, the part we call the Maghreb. Perhaps they were fleeing the Punic Wars or the Roman occupation, or famine or religious persecution – nothing much has changed! But they brought sheep, goats, pigs and dogs and seeds, so they were coming to stay. They probably came in different expeditions over a relatively long period of time and, given their probable agricultural origin, they most likely hired the services of professional seafarers to make the voyage. Of course, a trickle of stranded seamen, adventurers, misfits and refugees continued to come and mingle with the established population throughout history, just like today. (See my post KILROY.) There was not much ethnic or genetic variation among the aboriginal populations of the different islands in the archipelago.

Now just imagine that you and your family, with four or five other families, are the first to arrive here in El Hierro. It’s a desert island. Literally. There are no people, a lot of birds but no edible animals (except for some huge lizards). There’s a lot of rock, sand and volcanic badlands. There are dense forests in some places where it seems to rain all the time, although there is no rain in the clearings. Worst of all there are only a few miserable springs and seasonal streams. Later you discover your bronze or iron tools are the only bits of metal here. You remember seeing at home some things made of flint and the way old craftsmen knapped that material, but you cannot find any flint or even any workable stone like it.

There are things that you brought with you that you and your contingent are unlikely to change. Firstly your language. But even that evolves. By the time of the conquest in the fifteenth century, your vocabulary, pronunciation and syntax has changed enough to make it difficult for someone from Tenerife to understand you although you and his people have the same origin. You could say the same for your myths and religious practices, the seasonal festivities, your social behavior and so on. Your socio-political organization remains pretty much that of the village you came from. One romantic member of your group hammers into a petrified lava flow a jumbled collection of petroglyphs like those near the village back home, most likely without knowing what they represent. At the same time you have learnt to capture and conserve fresh water. You make the basic stone tools, crude but efficient enough, from basalt. You catch fish with a line and gorge and you eat vast amounts of limpet. You have learnt the properties of the local plants, their fruits and poisons. Notably you have adapted to your environment and in doing so you have simplified your material culture to the minimum – a few tools, mostly wooden, some elementary pottery made of poor quality clay – just enough to satisfy your basic needs as you move around the island’s pastures with your herds. No need to build hovels or carry tents: there are plenty of caves. You are no longer a proto-Berber resident on an island. You have become a Bimbache, or Bimbape, the prehispanic inhabitant of El Hierro.

Regrettably I have never had the opportunity to take a photo of
a Bimbache. But we can easily imagine her feelings of despair
and frustration when, however beautiful she may have thought
the evening colours, she saw almost at arm's length away the
silhuettes of  Tenerife and La Gomera above the sea of clouds.

There is one thing that intrigues newcomers to the Canaries today. Their prehispanic inhabitants, including those of El Hierro, had no means of travel by sea. They made no boats, canoes or rafts of any sort. One intrepid Guanche is supposed to have swum from Tenerife to La Gomera using inflated kid skins as waterwings - but I bet no-one from El Hierro did the same! The prevaling winds and current would have been too much even for an heroic Bimbache!

That’s about all we know of the island’s earliest people. We have very few of their artifacts, a few skeletons and all the rest is pure speculation. We’re not even sure that they called themselves Bimbache, since the contemporary chroniclers did not bother to tell us. We do have a lot of revealing place-names, though. But more of that in a later post.