Museum Piece

Even our umbrella - a yard-long rolled-up city type - looks cultured as we wait on this cold wet day for the Santa Cruz bus.

We would like to know more about this island's primitive history. Vanished peoples, like other extinct species, attract a certain wistful curiosity, and here in Tenerife we have our own local extinction to speculate about, for the Guanches are a sort of cultural asset. Mind you, Los Cristianos does have the new Cultural Centre in course of construction, and we do have the stripper bars and sex shop in Playa de las Americas for those who prefer the more liberal arts, so we are not entirely without culture! But the Guanches were a primitive people who left nothing cultural behind them.

So then... Here we are at the museum. Startlingly nobody knows where it is. Next to the central post office we find a postman who has some idea. We are directed up a dark stone staircase not quite to the top floor and through a double door where there is a man behind a very small desk. To enter we pay 200 pesetas each. The first thing we look for is information; potted histories, explanatory memoranda, the sort of things you look for in any museum worthy of the name. Nothing! No brochures, no leaflets, not even in Spanish. There are a few books, out of reach in a glass-fronted display case, the covers of which are faded and haven't been dusted in yonks.

"Es transitorio... provisorio... Pardon please." He is struggling, rural Canarian Spanish mixed with English. The poor man is doing his best with this temporary incomplete exhibition.

"Gracias amigo. No problemo." We feel guilty putting him to task with two Brits who, apart from himself, are the only people here.

Among the glass-cased displays of pottery and chipped flint, one incongruity stands forth - a splendidly black female dummy, the sort you put hats on or lacy underwear. Obviously used to better things she is in attitude suggestive of primitive labour and about as authentic-looking as Welsh whisky and absurdly out of place. The cultural impact is thereby lost, reduced to carnival. At the sides of the exhibits are wall-mounted descriptions of when and how the relics were found, but these tend to be the cryptic notes of specialists not easily understood by Joe Public.

We drift towards the mummies. Now these are quite fascinating. The care and delicate expertise put to the task of lifting them from their original resting places in mountain caves is worthy of admiration. As for the mummies themselves there is little romance to be found. Unlike Egyptian relics that reflect a sophisticated culture, these simple remains with primitive grave goods move one to pity rather than awe. They knew not metals, they knew not letters; they were fixed in a time capsule and left behind while the rest of the world moved on.

One tries to capture the modes of thought of these defunct island people. What things gave them pleasure? A well made pot? A straight-shafted spear? A well-chipped obsidian warhead? Good pasture for sheep and goats? Did they ever ask themselves what lay beyond this group of islands?

Given their low live birth-rate and short life-span their cultural compass must have been severely limited. They had no written language, nor even, it seems, simple pictograph representing the sun, the moon in its phases, or star formations. Yet it is known that their year was a lunar event. At the time of the conquest of Tenerife in the 15th century it is variously estimated that the island had 30,000 inhabitants. One might well think that over the centuries 30,000 people between them could have invented something approaching written work in addition to the "...spirals, circles and crosses engraved in hard rock..." mentioned by Father Spinoza.

The ancient Mexicans had a form of written language in the style of pictographs. Unfortunately the key to those hieroglyphs, which was preserved for a long time after the conquest of Mexico, is now lost, therefore we cannot say how they were connected to the spoken language. But that such a connection must have existed it is impossible to doubt; otherwise the Mexicans could not, as it is known they did, have communicated by mere pictures of visible objects the history of their culture from generation to generation.

Of all the tools of progress written language is the most powerful, simply because it does not rely on verbal tradition to carry knowledge forward. Without written language there is nothing to romance the mind into the garden of knowledge, for spoken language alone affords only a passing notion of what is meant.

According to my sources the Guanche were of two main types, Cro-Magnon and Mediterranean. Again according to sources the Cro-Magnon were, by the 15th century, already living on borrowed time. Perhaps they, like other primitive races, could not throw back to the original. The union with, say, an intermediate type would dissolve the strain even further, reproducing the more dominant type until the weaker one disappeared through successive generations of biological discrimination.

Father Espinosa mentions meeting a group of Guanche at Candelaria who still followed the old customs "...who are few in number because they are already mixed..."

Knowledge of these people is admittedly scarce; too much depends on second-class evidence, conjecture and comparison with other ancient peoples to form a complete picture. Current theory speaks of the Guanche travelling by sea from Barbary and ancient Libya carried by the Canary Current which flows southward along the coast of N.W. Africa down to the Cape Verde Islands. To me it seems unreasonable that a people with sufficient ship-building skills to sail the distance would promptly forget about them on arrival at the Canaries to the point of not even communicating with other islands in the group.

If we look at the world picture at the end of the Mesolithic period we find that a sudden warming of the earth's atmosphere melted away the last Ice Age allowing billions of tons of water to debouch into the sea. The resulting cataclysmic rise in sea-level - between 300 and 400 feet - inundated the low-lying forested swamp area between Britain and the continent of Europe thus isolating one from the other.

Maps of the Atlantic coast of Africa show Lanzarote and Fuerteventura clearly on the African continental shelf. And if, as seems likely, the coast of Africa extended much further westward in the Mesolithic period before the ice started to melt, then it is reasonable to assume that the Guanche were simply marooned when the sea-level rose. This would account for their fear of the sea and absence of ship-building skills.

One imagines the folk legends carried verbally from one generation to the next: of the ancient times when the sea rose and cut them off, of old lands which sank and new land which rose from the volcano, of the great demon who lived in the mouth of Teide.

These pathetic remains tell me nothing. But perhaps they knew with a sort of folk memory or hereditary foreknowledge that Mother Nature already had them by the throat.

Lizzie, who loves to run ahead and find out, zooms back with awesome news: "There's a sort of reception committee in the end room!"

Banks of skulls like some ghastly choir await us. I mean, for contemplating the meaning of life and stuff like that, one skull is sufficient - "Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy..." and so forth. But hundreds of skulls are a touch overwhelming; many are labeled with the dread diseases and injuries primitive people were heir to.

My Great Uncle Lambert sang with the Huddersfield Choral Society. On the piano in his sitting room were extraordinarily long photographs of the massed choir behind whom organ pipes rose. He would point to a tiny almost unrecognisable face among many rows of faces, "That's me," he would say, "Our tour of Canada 1947. And this one..." - pointing to an even older photo - "Paris 1934."

This chummy lot look as though about to break into Sweet Georgia Brown, or maybe a snatch of Cole Porter. They are smiling grimly for the photographer, but there is a relentless sameness which renders impossible any distinction between baritone and soprano sections! Their silence suggests maybe they are waiting for their key.

"We did Fauré's Requiem at the Royal Albert," said Great Uncle Lambert, "with the Liverpool Phil. and Malcolm Sargent."

But they don't know Fauré here in this room of skulls.

Alas, poor Yorick. We do not know you well. Sources tell me your people were fond of dancing and singing. Among your silent numbers there's just got to be somebody's Great Uncle Lambert!

"I wonder if they rehearse together at night?" says Lizzie. "Come along now, tenors, back to bar one: 'Dee-liver us O Lord...' And I want a nice crisp 'Dee'..."

We leave them to it. Perhaps they will forgive us for treating their fate lightly for fear of getting our enquiry into deep and muddy waters. The heroic defence of the Guanche against invaders from the Spanish mainland hastened their end, their poor stone-age self-sufficiency defeated by the metallurgy of a more advanced society.

If, by some beneficence of nature, the Guanche had been overlooked and allowed to develop unhindered, would they by now have a Mrs Beeton, a good food guide, discovered pi, even? We think not. That these people were doomed from the outset is, to our minds irresistibly convincing. They were shielded from external stimuli by physical geography, simply vegetating in isolation. The Cro-Magnon Guanche were a remnant, surviving in holes, corners and fastnesses long after their African mainland forbears had been absorbed by more progressive societies. They were held passive in the grip of Mother Nature, forever plagued by her sardonic humours. Drought or disease could have wiped them out or reduced them to the point of no return. Left to their own devices they would have disappeared by now. Sure of it.

Without a written guide to all this fascinating, ponderable stuff one is left to conjecture and fantasy. Allowing the mind to wander freely, if erroneously, into romantic visions is not the ideal way of visiting a museum full of classified objects.

Lizzie voices in, "The man says he is sorry. This is only temporary. A new museum building is to be built."

"Don't let them hurry for my sake!"

"So we'll come back when it's finished. By the way - where did you leave the umbrella?"

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