Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape

UNESCO World Heritage

Cultural landscape

The sacred mountain spaces are some of the most eloquent expressions of the landscapes, constructed, designed and experienced by the Canary-Amazigh people, home to particularly sophisticated forms of symbolic domination. In them, the humanised space goes hand in hand with idolatry to bind together perception and action, ideal and material, sacred and profane. Different cultural representations of these populations, from artificial painted caves to engravings of pubic triangles and Libyco-Berber alphabetic inscriptions, as seen on archaeological sites such as Risco Caído, Roque Bentayga, Cueva de las Estrellas or Cueva Candiles, are spread across the Cultural Landscape. 

The excavated light channel projecting the sun light by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Risco Caído archaeological complex

Cave C6 of the Risco Caído archaeological complex was thought to be an almogarén or sanctuary. This is an excavated enclosure with a circular floor plan. In addition, the paraboloid outline of the dome, the uniform pattern of measurements and proportions, and the way of working the materials demonstrate formal originality and an unusual constructive genesis in a culture with such limited resources.

However, in addition to its special architecture, the most significant aspect is that this cave demonstrates optical inventiveness in the form of an excavated light channel projecting the sun or full moon light on a wall in the main chamber, exactly where we find rock art in the form of bowls and pubic triangles etched in low relief. This is a unique representation that shows a visual, hitherto-undocumented, language for these cultures.

Inside Cave 6. Risco Caído Artenara by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Lunisolar calendar

One of the most exceptional aspects of Risco Caído’s archaeology is the representation of a solar and lunar hierophany, inside cave 6, based on images projected by the sun and the moon, that change shape as the days and months go by. The triangular engravings and domes also change their path along the wall where they are represented, like an altarpiece, and might possibly be reference points in the lunisolar calendar. 

This would begin at the spring equinox when solar images are projected until the autumn equinox. From this moment on and until the next spring equinox, it is the full-moon light, between the months of October and February, that will light up the engravings inside the temple. This ritualised marking of equinoxes and solstices would provide a calendar to regulate farming and production activities, essential for this society’s survival.

Roque Bentayga by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

An equinox marker

The Roque Bentayga is an extraordinarily wealthy archaeological site where, apart from the actual village, we can spot walls, burial grounds, caves featuring rock art, alphabetical inscriptions and the Bentayga almogarén or sanctuary.
Located at the epicentre of the Tejeda Basin, its immense bulk seems to organise this sacred space. 

Proof of this is the presence of the almogarén or sanctuary, an important place with astronomical connections that acts as a symbolic element and a backbone for the troglodyte representations that unfold throughout the Tejeda Basin. The design and location of the almogarén provides amazing natural alignment with Roque Nublo and indicates its astronomical use as an equinox marker. Shortly after daybreak during the equinox sunrise, a carved slot in a rocky promontory on the eastern edge of the site projects a shadow over a circular symbol around 70 cm in diameter, engraved in the platform floor.

Roque Bentayga by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Symbolic value

One of the most extraordinary hierophanies found in the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape occurs at the Roque Bentaya almogarén, where, during the equinox sunrise, the projected shadow through a slot carved in a rocky promontory on the eastern edge of the site matches a circular symbol - a glyph with a diameter of around 70 cm engraved in the floor of the central platform of the almogarén (sanctuary) at Roque Bentayga, demonstrating the place’s symbolic value.

Like many of the more relevant elements of the local landscape, this demonstrates that they act as references for the firmament, clearly signalled, providing as direct line of communication between the mountain sanctuaries and the heavens.

Mesa de Acusa and the mountains by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Geological landmarks

There are geological landmarks in the Cultural Landscape, such as the impressive Mesa de Acusa, that is home to one of the aborigines’ greatest and most spectacular troglodyte spots. This striking settlement edges the scarps of the large fertile plain on top of the plateau. The villages were excavated in strategic places although preferably at the foot of scarps. The collective granaries occupy the most inaccessible parts of the cliffs, and some are certainly impregnable. 

Sometimes cave dwellings also included a silo inside. Acusa Verde, Acusa Seca, Los Corrales, El Álamo, La Candelaria, El Hornillo, Fortamaga and El Vedado del Tablón are the current names of the different “troglodyte neighbourhoods” acknowledged in this place. Many of them are no longer inhabited but it should be noted that until the 18th century, Acusa had more inhabitants than the actual village of Artenara, head of the municipality. Acusa thereby became a paradigmatic example of the continuity of the pre-Hispanic troglodyte habitat from the Conquest to the present day.

Mesa de Acusa by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

A natural fort

La Mesa de Acusa, in itself, an impressive geological monument, is home to one of the largest and most spectacular troglodyte spots tied to Gran Canaria’s aborigines, partly reused and re-inhabited nowadays. This striking settlement edges the scarps of the large fertile plain on top of the plateau. Any way you look at Acusa, it seems to be a natural fort and that is exactly what attracted the interest of the aboriginal Canary people, choosing it as a safe place to set up their villages. What’s more, the great plain of fertile land that forms the Mesa platform was ideal for farming.

Its natural and artificial caves show practically an entire range of uses: living, rituals, funerals and storage in granaries. 

El Alamo granary by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Fortified troglodyte granaries

One very distinctive trait of the pre-Hispanic culture in Gran Canaria is the existence of troglodyte granaries, many of them collective and fortified or very hard to access, fundamentally intended for keeping and conserving excess farming products.
One of the most outstanding examples is the Álamo Granary, in the troglodyte complex of the Mesa de Acusa. 

The granary comprises two levels: a first level that is accessed through a passage in the rock, with marks suggesting it was closed with a door, and a second level that is accessed from the first and after a difficult climb up the plateau wall. This second level comprises a chamber around which 12 silos are arranged. The difficulty to reach this second level means that part of the original content of the silos has been preserved, providing unique information on economic strategies concerning food production in the aboriginal period.

Pubic triangle engravings by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Rock art engravings

The island of Gran Canaria holds inland treasures such as one of the greatest concentrations of rock art engravings that represent the female pubic triangle. They are always represented on the walls of artificial caves, in outstanding spots such as Risco Caído, Cuevas del Caballero, Roque Bentayga and, particularly the Cueva de los Candiles, a cave whose walls are completely covered in these representations.

These cultural manifestations have been historically and anthropologically interpreted from an iconology perspective as elements bound to beliefs and cults revolving around human and ecological fertility, regenerating the necessary resources for existence in agropastoral societies; this all picks a schematised female pubic triangle as its main iconographic element, with or without representation of the vulva.

Libyco-Berber engravings by Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Alphabetic engravings

The presence of several sets of Libyco-Berber type alphabetic engravings in the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape provides further exceptional examples that should be added to this area’s characteristics. The meaning of these representations goes beyond the mere presence of singular rock art inscriptions given that, along with the language, they form the cultural background of Northern African societies, representing this site’s outstanding ties with the Amazigh culture that is still present in the oral memory.

These are fundamentally panels that represent lines of still-undeciphered writing, made by puncturing and rubbing, scratching and incision techniques, seen at sites such as Roque Bentayga, Cuevas del Rey, El Toscón and Visvique.

Female terracotta idol by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Terracotta idols

In Gran Canaria, more than two hundred terracotta idols have been documented, mainly female representations. They are a clearly differentiating element that identifies its culture. They are figurative representations and although they mainly represent the human figure, there are also examples of animal representations.

Items have also been documented whose unusual or shocking traits for our aesthetic perception have led us to consider them as beastly or chimerical. Most of the figures are female, highlighting their sexual traits and, in many cases, displaying very prominent bellies associated with motherhood. In some cases, the figures appear decorated with red paint or incisions that seem to mark hair or body art. There was a clear relationship between some of these pieces and the religious world. However, it should not be ruled out that some of the figures are simply votive offerings, amulets, or even toys.

Mummified corpse by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Funeral rites

The funeral rites of the ancient Canary people show standardised and generalised ways of treating the body before being put in the grave, consistent with wrapping bodies in a shroud. This would suppose that there were specialists dedicated to this work. It should be noted that this pattern was not incompatible with the existence of differences between individuals. In fact, this asymmetry is clear in the unequal manufacturing quality of shrouds, some of which have made it to the present day in such excellent condition that mummification techniques were even considered. 

However, archaeological and anthropological evidence has ruled out the use of embalming as a technique to intentionally preserve dead bodies. Gran Canaria’s “mummies” consist of shrouded individuals in a partial state of skeletonization  that conserves good skin condition with vegetable fibres used to make the shroud.

Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

The firmament

The firmament, intrinsically linked to the Earth, is the stage for events and happenings that are relevant to human beings. Analysis of astronomical implications among the archaeological landmarks of the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape, such as Risco Caído, Roque Bentayga or Acusa, indicates intentionality in relationships with the heavens that are as-yet unknown.

They suggest that monitoring the path of the celestial bodies was an important factor for ancient villagers in terms of finding their way and the intention of many pre-Hispanic sanctuaries, participating directly in the population’s symbolic and spiritual world.

Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

The Population

The Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape is a humanised space, modelled by generations of men and women who have made their mark on the land with farming activities, water management, transhumance, pottery, the outlines of its paths, etc.

The human factor, the inventive capacity to provide solutions to local reality and adapt their environment, comprises a whole universe full of tangible and intangible experiences. The inhabitants have passed on a great legacy in the form of goods, historical engineering, cave dwellings, landscapes where crops are grown on bench terraces, etc. and intangible heritage: a world of flavours, uses and traditions that find their meaning in the territory where they live.

Caves by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

The Caves

The Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape is dotted with ancestral human occupation spots, each one unique, but with a common denominator of living in natural and particularly artificial caves.

By means of an exceptional tradition in the use of these caves for many of the functions of existence, from life to eternal rest, former villagers and current inhabitants have adapted to the landscape’s vibrant volcanic geology, featuring crags, ravines and scarps. A sustainable way of life, with a direct line to space. 

Locals have been living in these caves for hundreds of years by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Cave dwellings

Troglodyte habitats survive to the present day in the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape for reasons of identity, custom and because they offer the best weather conditions as opposed to imported models.

Troglodyte dwellings could be natural, making the most of existing caves, or artificial, although in any case they were almost always a transformed space. Within the artificial caves, the cave dwellings usually have a globe-shaped, quadrangular or rectangular floor space, frequently in the shape of a cross, representing a clear example of standardised construction methods and techniques.

Female potters working inside a cave by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Traditional pottery

Pottery is an ancestral indigenous practice that has survived through the ages. The singular process of making pots originates from Lugarejos, the potting hub within the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape. The potters’ workshops, usually run by women, are traditionally workshop-caves that provide ideal conditions for this craft.

This starts by stamping on the clay mixed with sand and water. The piece is moulded and left to dry. Then it is planed, smoothed and decorated with red ochre, a colouring product with volcanic origins. Finally, it is fired directly in an open-air bonfire. The result is a fine piece, lighter than normal because it had to be carried a long way on foot over difficult ground, often balanced on the head.

Canarian transhumance by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Transhumance

Surprisingly some of the aborigines’ ancestral practices have survived over the centuries in this land, conditioning and creating a singular footprint on the landscape of these mountains where the past blends in with the present. The transhumance routes, migratory livestock practices and associated grazing land are thereby outstanding characteristics of the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape. This heritage comes alongside an extensive network of tracks and footpaths that the ancient Canary people used for animal migration.

There are currently around 50 cattle holdings in the Cultural Landscape and its surroundings out of a total of 150 on the island that usually involve shepherding. This place has a livestock census of 3,150 sheep and 1,946 goats, with a transhumance surface area of 1009 ha.

The cultural landscape “Risco Caído and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria” by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Unique variety of barley

The ancient Canary people for food, fodder for animals or medicinal remedies used different seeds, fruits and other plants. Despite the importance of these resources, there is a distinct lack of knowledge so far, on how the first inhabitants of the island used them, as the plant evidence in the sites went unnoticed by the specialists until recently. In fact, recent studies showed that the same unique variety of barley as sown by the ancient villagers is still grown, already adapted to the land.

Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria is thereby home to sustainable ways of life and relationships with the land that can be projected into the future. Its past and present inhabitants, the stars of this show, have created and still create this cultural landscape from agriculture, livestock farming or pottery, continuously living in an area passed down by their ancestors.

The cultural landscape “Risco Caído and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria” by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Fire and lava

Miguel de Unamuno visited Gran Canaria twice and wrote the most famous description of the impressive Tejeda basin, part of the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains Cultural Landscape: “Passing paths hacked out of sudden, steep cliffs, we visited the Tejeda valley. The spectacle is imposing. All those black walls to the great cauldron, with its peaks, that look like battlements, with their erect rocks, give it a Dantesque vision.

The cauldrons of Hell visited by the Florentine author must look just the same. It is a tremendous commotion in the bowels of the Earth; it all seems like a petrified tempest, but a tempest of fire and lava rather than water [...] Here we can only guess at what must have been a terrible fight between Vulcan and Neptune, the god of fire and the god of water.

Bench terraces by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Bench terraces

Bench terraces or farming terraces are man-made structures on the landscape that make it easier to farm the inaccessible scarps, adding environmental, natural and ethnographic values to the area they mark out. In Gran Canaria, they can be found in steep, precipitous areas. Within the Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains Cultural Landscape, they can be particularly spotted throughout the Barranco Hondo, around the Timagada settlement and under the village of Tejeda.

These crop structures have been analysed in detail in terms of the orography and geology to capture and retain the largest possible quantity of water by constructing cave ponds, channels worked in living stone and cantoneras (water distribution systems) that all make it easier to store large quantities of water at one point and subsequently distribute it over the farming terraces, encouraging what is known as “blanket irrigation”.

Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape by Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural LandscapeUNESCO World Heritage

Credits: Story

This exhibit was created by Cabildo de Gran Canaria: https://cabildo.grancanaria.com/ and https://riscocaido.grancanaria.com/
More on Risco Caído and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape and World Heritage: whc.unesco.org/en/list/1578/ 
Photos: Cabildo de Gran Canaria

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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