Mummies Around the World @ Mummy Tombs


Guanche Mummies


Where they were found

Found primarily in caves on four of the seven Canary Islands, Guanche mummies once numbered in the thousands. Today only a handful remain, mostly in museum collections (which may not be on display).

When they were made

Very little research concerning the Guanche mummies has been carried out, and definite dates that the mummies were produced are not known. The mummies were initially found by the Spanish during the 1400s as they conquered the island chain; other explorers discovered more over the next few centuries. Most Guanche mummies would have been made prior to 1400.

How they were made

Because A photo of a Guanche mummy displayed at the San Diego Museum of Man.the scientific study of Guanche mummies has been almost nonexistent, no analysis of the mummies found on the four islands has been published. Consequently, the following information is based only on the mummies discovered on Tenerife. There, the Guanches appear to have used three different methods for mummification:

(1) Internal organs were sometimes removed (this may have been reserved for individuals who were members of the highest level Guanche society).

(2) Special substances were sometimes used to embalm the body: soil and stone, various kinds of vegetable matter, and fat solids.

(3) Sand was stuffed into some mummies.

No matter which method (or combination) was used, a Guanche mummy was most likely dried out in the sun first. At the end of the process, the mummy was wrapped in animal skins, such as goat skins; kings received 10-15 skins, other individuals received many fewer. Then it was placed in a cave on a special mummy board. Finally, a stone wall was erected around the mummy. These factors (drying, cave burial, wall) also helped insure that the mummy would be preserved. 

[SOURCE: Conrado Rodriguez-Martín, "The Guanche Mummies." In Mummies, Disease and Ancient Cultures  by Aidan Cockburn, Eve Cockburn, and Theodore Reyman. London: Cambridge University Press, 1998.]

How many were made

No one knows.

What's special about them

(1) Mummification was apparently done on the elite members of Guanche society.

(2) Like the mummies of many civilizations, Guanche mummies were used and abused by various individuals--so much so that very few remain today. A large number (apparently well over half the preserved bodies found) were pulverized into powder and sold as "mummy"--a medicine often prescribed by medieval doctors for stomach aches. At first only Egyptian mummies were ground for "mummy," but by the 1500s, the supply of Egyptian mummy had dwindled. Consequently, Guanche mummies were used, effectively obliterating their dead and destroying whatever information the mummies could have shared with scientists about the history and prehistory of Guanche people.

Where to see them

Most Guanche mummies have been removed from display out of deference to the Guanche's descendants (and the terrible treatment that the Guanche mummies received). Older book on mummies, however, often published a photo or two of Guanche mummies; getting a look at one should not be difficult. At last report, perhaps the only Guanche mummies still on exhibit are found at the Museo de la naturaleza y el hombre in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. The exhibit includes several Guanche mummies, skulls, and artifacts.

Where to find more information