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29 Apr 2012

What Links the Canary Islands, the Romans and Goat Pee?

Purple dye made by the Romans in the Canary Islands

When the Spanish arrived in the Canary Islands they found a mysterious race already living on every island. These are now known as the Guanches, although technically the name refers only to the people of Tenerife. 

The guanches didn't use the wheel, had no metal tools, and didn’t make boats. The origins were, and still are, a bit of a mystery. History wasn't kind to them: The Spanish conquered them despite some pretty heroic resistance. Disease and war pretty much wiped them out within 100 years of the rediscovery of the Canary Islands.  The last few guanches integrated into medieval Spanish society and their culture and languages disappeared.

Theories for their origins range from loony fringe ideas, like lost Egyptians and the last inhabitants of Atlantis, to more sensible suggestions such as marooned sailors. The most popular theories are that the Guanches were either deliberately marooned on the Canary Islands as a punishment, or placed here for trade by the Romans or the Phoenicians.

Genetics and linguistics show that the Guanches were descended from the Berbers of North Africa. The Phoenicians were North African, while the Romans were busy conquering the area at about the time that Guanches first arrived on the Canary Islands.

A recent find on Lobos Islet, just of the northern tip of Fuerteventura, help explain things. Archaeologists have discovered clear evidence of a Roman dye-making factory on the islet. The Romans loved their purple dye and used to make it from a Mediterranean seashell called the murex. They basically exhausted the supply and had to look further afield for their purples.

We now know that the Romans were harvesting seashells in the Canary Islands. Why they put their factory on the waterless islet of Lobos nobody is quite sure: It may be because it was home to seals and lots of sea birds that were convenient food sources. 

Purple dye was such a valuable commodity in Roman times that it is quite possible that they kept the Canary Islands secret to protect their source. When Rome fell, the guanches were left in isolation for over 1000 years.  

As well as seashells, there is a type of lichen growing in the Canaries that also produces a purple dye. It’s a funny looking thing with long, grey strands covered in white nobbles. A long time ago someone worked out that if you grind it up and mix it with ammonia it produces a vivid purple dye. How did people get hold of ammonia? Well, they basically left goat pee to ferment in the sun until it turned into ammonia.

Experts have long speculated that the Romans harvested the lichen in the Canary Islands. There is no evidence of this on Lobos, where the lichen doesn’t grow, but the odd Roman artefact does pop up occasionally on the other islands and in the sea. Tantalizingly, Roman chronicler Pliny the Elder referred to the Canary Islands as the 
Purpuriae Insulae” in about AD 50.

One thing is certain: If the Romans were making dye in the Canary Islands, it was a smelly business that we don't want to go back to!