ESSAYS FROM ARCHAEOASTRONOMY & ETHNOASTRONOMY NEWS, THE QUARTERLY BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR ARCHAEOASTRONOMY
Number 26 September Equinox 1997
NUMBER SYSTEMS AND CALENDARS OF THE BERBER POPULATIONS OF GRAND CANARY AND
by Jose Barrios Garca
In the 14-15th centuries Grand Canary and Tenerife were inhabited by Berber
populations, called Canarians and Guanches. They presumably came from the
nearby continent on different occasions between the first millennium BC and the
first millennium AD. These populations remained relatively isolated until the
European rediscovery of the Islands in late 13th century. At this time the
population of each Island was about 40-60,000 inhabitants, sustaining a
developed agricultural (barley, wheat) and stock raising (goats, sheep, pigs)
Written sources from c. 1300 AD on certify the arithmetical and calendrical
activities of these groups. On this basis, I started the research on the
mathematical and astronomical practices of these people that crystallized into
my doctoral dissertation (editors note: congratulations to Jose for his recent
defense of thesis at the University of La Laguna, Tenerife). For each Island
the study considered: 1) the economical, social, political and religious
organization of the Island 2) the written and archaeological evidence regarding
numerical and calendrical activities 3) the economic and cultural context of
the number systems and the calendars.
Both Islands used a pure 10-based system, deeply related to both proto-Berber
and ancient Egyptian numeral systems, without discarding the possibly
concurrent use of a 12-based system related with calendrical counts. Drawing
evidence from ethnographic written sources I establish the existence of
systematic records of lunar, solar and sidereal counts for both Islands.
The research for Grand Canary is complemented with an archaeoastronomical study
of the mountain of Cuatro Puertas, usually considered of great religious
importance. From the evidence collected I infer that at its top there is a
summer solstice marker which works by mean of the shadow a certain rock casts
at sunrise upon a great sign carefully carved on the opposite wall.
Archaeological, ethnohistorical and linguistic evidences led me to propose that
the Canarians systematically recorded numerical, astronomical and calendrical
data by mean of geometrical figures (squares, triangles, circles, etc.) painted
in white, red and black on wood planks and on the walls of certain caves.
Evidence from the decoration of the Painted Cave of Galdar (the main preserved
painted cave of the Island), led me to propose they use a chessboard of 3
(vertical) x 4 (horizontal) squares, named acano, to represent 12 moons. On
this base, I proceed to study the acano as a lunar calendar, showing how the
vertical numeration of its squares force the solstitial, equinoctial and
eclipse moons to move across the board with very simple and stable patterns.
These patterns provide a safe and clear mnemonic guide for performing on the
acano an easy arithmetical calculus of seasonal and eclipse moons over extended
periods of time.
The proposed calculus establishes the octaeteris and the 135-moon eclipse cycle
as basic periods of the acano. The Canarians certainly observed the summer
solstice and had important festivals on the crescent moon that followed. I
present two accounts from ancient sources supporting the idea that they
measured one and half eclipse years as 520 days. The proposed calculus on the
acano would reveal an unsuspected high level of Canarian mathematical astronomy
and pose the question of the origin of this set of techniques.
My main thesis with respect to the Guanche calendar, is the fundamental role
played played by the phases of the star Canopus. Its heliacal rise about middle
August fixed the first moon of the Guanche lunar calendar, while its heliacal
set on late April and its acronical rise on late January fixed the two other
well documented feasts of the Island. The Guanche cult to this star was later
transferred to what have been by far the main Catholic cult of the Island after
the conquest: the Virgin of Candelaria. Additional evidence drawn from
continental Berbers supports the antiquity and widespread of a Canopus
cosmological system in Northwest Africa.
On the Guanche record keeping, written sources point out the use of tally
woods and, very specially, small clay beads joined with a string to form a sort
of necklaces, commonly found in funerary caves. Nevertheless, the absence of
well preserved examples in a reliable archaeological context impede testing
these accounts. My Thesis ends with an Appendix, listing c. 140 manuscripts,
copies or editions of the 31 written ethnographic sources supporting the
research, and ranging from 14th to 17th centuries.