A trip to Tenerife may involve no more than a week spent enjoying the beaches and perfecting your tan, but most of us would probably take a day or so to explore the island. One of the more intriguing possibilities for the tourist will be the Pyramids of Güímar, which are the subject of a huge number of articles online, most of which will claim something about how these “six step pyramids are still a mystery to archaeologists.”
All manner of exciting potential origins have been proposed for the impressive edifices, and many similar structures around the Canary Islands, from the pyramids being the remains of a pre-Columbian pan-Atlantic civilization, to Masonic symbolism and influences on their construction. The most likely explanation, which is accepted by most archaeologists, is discussed by Cornel M. A. van Strijp in his new book The Black Pyramids Mystery… Solved!, and it tells us a lot more about the history of the islands than unscientific claims that “thousands of years ago, a race of fair-skinned men with blond hair and beards sailed the oceans” and imparted advanced knowledge to indigenous peoples.
Van Strijp’s book, which also covers similar pyramids in the volcanic islands of Mauritius, Sicily and the Azores, has a suitably provocative title that may make you think it intended to appeal to fans of ancient aliens theories. Ancient aliens do, inevitably, make brief appearances, including as one of the (incorrect) theories proposed for the Mauritian pyramids. This, I think, is the genius of the book; in structure it resembles the (pseudo) archaeological books that fascinated me as a teenager, taking the reader through the various outlandish possibilities, drawing the reader in with pictures and diagrams, but unlike the Erich von Dänikens of the world, evidence and facts are given due and appropriate weight, and the actual explanation emerges.
The apparent controversy over the Canary Islands pyramids began in earnest with Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian adventurer who found fame with his Kon Tiki expedition, which aimed to demonstrate his theory that people from South America could have reached Polynesia using technology available in pre-Columbian times. Mainstream academics reject Heyerdahl’s hyperdiffusionist model, but undeterred, he learned of these stepped pyramids in the Canaries, and decided that they are remains from “pre-European voyagers who sailed the Atlantic in ancient times, and may have possibly forged a link with the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas.”
The evidence for this? The pyramids, which seemed to resemble others around the world too closely to be coincidence, were apparently referenced in writings from around the time of the Castilian conquest of the islands in the 15th century. Furthermore, the traditional explanation that the local people and local academics had for them – that they were by-products of agricultural land-clearance – seemed to be contradicted by their locations and construction methods; why would farmers make such grand designs for rubble clearance? Surely these pyramids were of ceremonial or religious importance.
However, like many such pseudo-archaeological claims, they fall apart with a more comprehensive accounting of the facts. The mentions of pyramids from older texts are selectively quoted by Heyerdahl and allies to give the impression that they must be referring to the large stepped pyramids that can be seen today, rather than specific – and limited – geometric forms. In one case the full quote clearly refers to a structure that most resembles a pile of rubble!
The issue of the location is also easily dismissed; the pyramids are almost all found in so-called “badlands” – areas of ground that have large quantities of rocks – these are volcanic islands – that need to be removed to be cultivable, rather than the highlands known to have been used for ceremonial purposes. The book quotes late nineteenth century Belgian traveller Jules Leclercq:
Architecture is not possible in this kind of terrain, without first extracting the rocks, hence the fields that are surrounded by walls of thickness that could defy the most modern artillery. If, after finishing these walls, there still are rocks left, they make a pile, or mollero, in one of the corners of the field.
The pseudo-archaeological claims also ask why they farmers cleared the land in such geometric forms, and didn’t just dump the rubble in a ravine, the answers to which are pretty obvious; they didn’t dump it in the neighbouring ravine because someone owned that, and they built it to last because why not build to last, rather than do it again next year, and why not make the cleared area into useful terraces for further cultivation? As local history professor Manuel Alonso is quoted:
The work of neatly piling up the rocks in walls and majanos is not a waste of time. On the contrary, it is gaining time for the future, Stones that have been stacked this way, will not disturb again. Our farmers were patient, wise and hard workers, real artists of the land.
Put at a more base level: land that had been cleared and stacked in that way was, according to one of van Stijl’s sources, worth almost four times as much per acre as uncleared land. It is likewise no surprise that larger and wealthier landowners might desire more impressive stepped pyramids than their neighbours.
This outside interest in the pyramids, and their supposed mysterious origins, seems to be a source of sincere frustration for local people, such as an unnamed Tenerife councillor of agriculture in the 1990s:
Very little interest exists for our own culture… and even less for rural matters, since it is synonym for a past of poverty about which nobody likes to be reminded… It can only be seen as a lack of respect for a people who struggled to survive…
The relatively recent fight to exist on marginal land is fascinating; fictions are not needed to make history interesting. I’ve barely scratched the surface with the evidence presented on the Canary Islands, let alone the other three chapters, and while I disagree in places with the author (I’m no expert, but doubt that the conquest of the islands and subsequent assimilation of the natives was really “voluntary”) I did enjoy the book, and feel a lot better informed for having read it.
The same cannot, in all probability, be said for visitors to the Güímar pyramids. These are now part of an ethnographic park, which is based very much on Heyerdahl’s work, and would leave one with the strong impression that Thor Heyerdahl was right about everything.