Genomic Analyses of Pre-European Conquest Human Remains from the Canary Islands Reveal Close Affinity to Modern North Africans

Ricardo Rodríguez-Varela*, Torsten Günther, Maja Krzewińska, Jan Storå, Thomas H. Gillingwater, Malcolm MacCallum, Juan Luis Arsuaga, Keith Dobney, Cristina Valdiosera, Mattias Jakobsson, Anders Götherström, Linus Girdland-Flink

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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The origins and genetic affinity of the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands, commonly known as Guanches, are poorly understood. Though radiocarbon dates on archaeological remains such as charcoal, seeds, and domestic animal bones suggest that people have inhabited the islands since the 5th century BCE [1–3], it remains unclear how many times, and by whom, the islands were first settled [4, 5]. Previously published ancient DNA analyses of uniparental genetic markers have shown that the Guanches carried common North African Y chromosome markers (E-M81, E-M78, and J-M267) and mitochondrial lineages such as U6b, in addition to common Eurasian haplogroups [6–8]. These results are in agreement with some linguistic, archaeological, and anthropological data indicating an origin from a North African Berber-like population [1, 4, 9]. However, to date there are no published Guanche autosomal genomes to help elucidate and directly test this hypothesis. To resolve this, we generated the first genome-wide sequence data and mitochondrial genomes from eleven archaeological Guanche individuals originating from Gran Canaria and Tenerife. Five of the individuals (directly radiocarbon dated to a time transect spanning the 7th–11th centuries CE) yielded sufficient autosomal genome coverage (0.21× to 3.93×) for population genomic analysis. Our results show that the Guanches were genetically similar over time and that they display the greatest genetic affinity to extant Northwest Africans, strongly supporting the hypothesis of a Berber-like origin. We also estimate that the Guanches have contributed 16%–31% autosomal ancestry to modern Canary Islanders, here represented by two individuals from Gran Canaria. Rodríguez-Varela et al. report the first genome-wide data from the aboriginals of the Canary Islands, the Guanches, confirming the long-held hypothesis that the Guanches originated from a North African Berber-like population and showing that modern inhabitants of Gran Canaria carry an estimated 16%–31% Guanche autosomal ancestry.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3396-3402
Number of pages6
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number21
Early online date26 Oct 2017
Publication statusPublished - 6 Nov 2017

Bibliographical note

This work has been funded by Swedish Research Council grant 2013-1905. R.R.-V. was funded by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation (1000 Ancient Genome Project) and a Fundación Ramón Areces and Fundación Atapuerca postdoctoral scholarship. L.G.-F. was supported by a LJMU Collaborative Research Fellowship. Computations were performed using UPPMAX (Uppsala Multidisciplinary Centre for Advanced Computational Science) resources under the projects b2013203, b2013240, b2015307, and b2016056. We also thank three anonymous reviewers for constructive comments, Ruth Pollitt for excellent assistance and discussions about the remains held at AMEU, and Arielle Munters for processing and curating raw DNA sequence data.


  • aboriginal populations
  • admixture
  • ancient DNA
  • archaeogenomics
  • Canary Islands
  • colonization
  • Guanche
  • population genomics


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