and the sacred mountain landscapes of Gran Canaria
The archaeoastronomical monuments of the native people of Gran Canaria
In 1996, the Risco Caído almogaren (aboriginal sanctuary) was discovered in the mountains of Gran Canaria. It is a unique and exceptional archaeological complex that was of religious and astronomical significance to the early settlers on the island.
This was the prize find in a long process of rediscovery of this space that was of special symbolic significance to the native people of Gran Canaria. Nestled in these areas, located within the enormous crater of Caldera de Tejeda, are some of the most spectacular mountain sanctuaries of those island inhabitants, alongside a series of original cave structures that were cut out of the rock in places that are all but inaccessible..
The cultural and historical context of the sacred space
Risco Caído and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria host a complex of archaeological sites and cultural landscapes that are well-preserved, belonging to an insular culture disappeared that evolved in isolation since the arrival of the first Berbers or amazighs from North Africa at the beginning of New Era until the period between the 12th and 14th centuries AD, when seafarers from southern Europe came to the islands in search of new spice routes and slave trade. This is therefore, an exceptional heritage that expresses a unique cultural process that we are only now beginning to understand.
A singular group of exceptional value
The troglodyte settlements at Caldera de Tejeda and the surrounding area are an outstanding example of this type of human habitat in ancient island cultures, illustrating a level of organisation of space and adaptive management of natural resources that is both highly efficient and complex. The colossal geological backdrop and the natural landscape fuse with the cave settlements, structures and terraces, creating an authentic "cultural landscape" that still retains its symbolic and cosmological connotations.
At Risco Caído and in the sacred mountain area, we can observe a language that was used by the Canarian people to provoke intense social emotions: rituals, art, perceptive effects and a unique connection with the Universe. It is the intangible and symbolic dimension presided over by the great astronomical knowledge of the ancient settlers, their unique calendar, their rituals, the intelligent adaptation of their habitat to their surroundings and their use of land and resources that provides the pieces of the puzzle that when pieced together, allow us to see the meaning of the extraordinary and unique elements that adorn the tangible properties included within the confines of this space (sanctuaries, astronomical markers, ceremonial centres, cave dwellings or symbolic natural events).
On the vertical walls to the north of Caldera de Tejeda is the ceremonial centre Risco Chapín Sanctuary, which incorporates the cave sites of Cueva de Candiles, Cueva Caballero and Cueva del Cagarrutal. This is a complex of caves, dug out of the rock, with a wealth of unique carvings on the interior walls that include pubic triangles, bas relief carvings and cupules or cup marks carved into the floor and walls. The Candiles cave contain more than 350 carvings that line the interior walls of the artificial chamber making it one of the archaeological sites with the largest number of representations of this pubic ideogram on the word.
Outside these sacred mountain sites, there are very few sites on the island with these types of pubic carvings that relate to fecundity and fertility. The significance and astronomical orientation is evident in the caves at Cuevas de Caballeros and Cueva de Los Candiles, as well as the symbolic relationship with the Roque Bentayga and Roque Nublo rocks.
The Sierra del Bentayga archaeological complex includes Roque de Cuevas del Rey and Roque Bentayga. The former includes a dense and unique series of caves that were used as a collective granary. Cueva del Rey or king's cave is located here. Adorned with its unusual pictorial motifs this cave is one of the most significant examples of a cave sanctuary in the Canary Islands. The latter is the epicentre of the symbology and cosmology of the ancient islanders. Roque Bentayga was used as an impenetrable fortress until it was finally conquered and taken by the Spanish troops at the end of the 15th century. This is an extraordinarily rich archaeological site in which are found ancient walls, caves and cave art, petroglyph stations, including alphabet inscriptions, and the sanctuary of Bentayga. The almogaren at Roque Bentayga was designed and positioned in such a way that it has an astonishing natural alignment with Roque Nublo which is indicative of its use as equinoctial marker and provides exceptional archaeological evidence for the peculiar calendar of the aboriginal population that was referred to in the Chronicles of the Conquest.
The Mesa de Acusa plateau, which in itself constitutes an impressive geological monument, was one of the largest and most spectacular fortified cave settlements of these early inhabitants. This impressive settlement borders the rocky escarpments of the large fertile plain at the top of the plateau. This complex of rock caves adorned in places with beautiful pictograms and used as dwellings, granaries, places of worship and burial, in conjunction with the agricultural area on top of the plateau, comprises a cultural landscape that is most indicative of a prehistoric habitat that has survived up to the present day. Until recent times this ancient settlement known as "cuevas de los antiguos" or caves of the ancients, was more densely populated than some of the bigger villages of the north the island..
On the left-hand side of Barranco Hondo and located in an area rich in paleontological remains is the ancient troglodyte settlement of Risco Caído. The settlement is formed of some 20 artificial caves, two of which are worthy of special note, caves C6 and C7. Situated to the north of the settlement, these caves, probably the oldest in the area, house what was a mountain ceremonial centre for the inhabitants of the island in ancient times.
Comprised of a series of unique "star sites", this was the sacred space of one of the most amazing and unknown island cultures on the planet.
This culture, that has since disappeared, evolved in almost isolation over a period of at least 1500 years. These star sites, which are fine examples of this unique archaeological and archaeoastronomical heritage, are found in four main areas: Risco Chapín Sanctuary, Sierra del Bentayga, Mesa de Acusa and Almogaren de Risco Caído.
The complex of archaeological sites is an exceptional testimony to an ancient island culture, since disappeared, that had a highly developed knowledge of astronomy and which evolved in isolation over a period of more than 1500 years. This heritage is illustrative of the odyssey of many cultures that have settled on the islands of the world and that have evolved over long periods of time without external influences, thus creating their own cosmology and a wealth of knowledge and beliefs that are extraordinarily unique.
The highly sophisticated nature of the astronomical markers, particularly Risco Caído and Roque Bentayga, constitute a landmark without precedent in ancient island cultures, even when compared with continental megalithic sites of renown. Its unique value lies in how a protostate society, isolated, and with very limited technology, could attain such a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy as that expressed in its calendar and in how it dealt with astronomical concepts as abstract as the equinoxes.
Unifying element of the sacred spaces
The sanctuary and astronomical marker at Risco Caído represents a unique architectural masterpiece, both in terms of its conception and its significance, its design and the structural and symbolic elements contained therein. This site can and should be seen as a unique and extraordinary phenomenon in the evolution of the rock-cut architecture of the early inhabitants of the island and as a feat of ingenuity that combines ancient cosmology and sacred symbolism in the context of the ancient island cultures of our planet.
As a architectural work, the cave-calendar of Risco Caído is the most intricate and perfect structure in this complex. In an isolated culture that did not even use metal, this ingenious accomplishment is a true paradigm of an in-depth knowledge of technology, architecture and astronomy. This area, dug out from the rock with a circular floor, is very unusual in this type of structure on the island.
In addition, the parabolic dome, the uniform pattern of measurements and proportions, as well as the way in which the materials were worked, denote a formal originality and extraordinary structural creation in a culture with such limited resources. This enclosure is accompanied by another large annexed chamber with a complex system of sculpted basins (called "cazoletas") carved into the floor that covers almost its entire surface, which again reinforces the ceremonial nature of the site and its possible use in the celebration of rituals.
The astronomical design and the constructive technique used at Risco Caído, which embody exceptional and unique geological, geotechnical, geometric or luminotechnical knowledge, represent a masterpiece of human genius and creativity in a situation of isolation. Its architectural design which encompasses religious, social and astronomical functionalities, constitutes an exceptional accomplishment within the realm of ancient rupestrian manifestations on islands
Astronomy, carvings and y symbolism
Current archaeological research clearly shows that this "lost temple" of the ancient Canarian people was also used as an ingenious and precise astronomical marker. This marker allows to point the arrival of the equinoxes and the summer solstices when the rays of the rising sun penetrated into the temple. The autumn equinox, in turn, was marked by the entry of the light of the full moon.
Inside this rock-cut cave, daily, as dawn breaks between the months of March and September, the rays of the rising sun penetrate by an opening carved into the cupule of the temple and are projected onto one of the walls of the main chamber that is sculpted with basins and pubic triangle petroglyphs in bas-relief.
This is a unique manifestation of a outstanding visual language for this culture, whereby the rays of the sun are projected into and penetrate the opening with its indentations and grooves specifically designed for this purpose, to create a remarkable sequence of images that are projected onto the carvings.
It is in this way that a story that has been told since time immemorial is related, with moving visual images, in acknowledgement of the fertilising role of the Sun on Mother Earth represented here by the pubic triangle.
Discovery, research and diffusion
Since 1992, the local government, Cabildo de Gran Canaria, has been responsible for protecting the historical heritage of the island and as such, great strides have been made in safeguarding the conservation and maintenance of the sites, including the purchase of the main landmarks such as Risco Caído and other lands of interest.
The comprehensive project at Risco Caído, led by the archaeologists Julio Cuenca and José de León, is being carried out with the support of an interdisciplinary team of professionals from different areas of expertise that are involved not only in archaeological and archaeoastronomical research work, but also in geological, geomorphological and petrological analysis of the entire area.
Likewise, the latest technologies available are being used to study the archaeological complex in order to support research, conservation, protection and analysis of the authenticity of the properties in question. Surveys have thus been carried out using scanner lasers to capture point clouds and advanced photogrammetric work is used to study the rock art found inside the artificial chambers or caves and ground penetrating radar probing is carried out to determine the existence of any possible internal defects in the caves. In some cases, as at Risco Caído, rigorous studies are also being carried out on the caves to determine their condition and how fragile they are, such as those carried out by geologists like Ismael Solá or the Eduardo Torroja Institute of the Spanish National Research Institute (CSIC).
Risco Caído and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria bear some similarities with some of the few cultural or mixed properties on the World Heritage List that relate to ancient island cultures.
Rapa Nui National Park (Easter Island)
This is home to some of the most significant expressions of an island culture in the Polynesian region that evolved in isolation from the 4th Century until it capitulated in the 16th Century. In light of new research, the ceremonial platforms (ahus) from which the famous moais rise up can now be reinterpreted from an archaeoastronomical point of view.
More information at UNESCO
Orkney Islands Neolithic Centre (Scotland)
The group of Neolithic monuments on Orkney, which include a settlement and stone circles, represent an important prehistoric landscape of cultural interest that shows what life was like in this remote archipelago some 5000 years ago. The alignments of these complexes include clear solstice markers.
More information at UNESCO.
Rock Islands (Palau)
Its dry stone wall settlements, burial places and cave art reveal an organised system that was developed by these small island communities over almost three millennia. The villages were eventually abandoned in the 18th Century as the population grew making the continued survival of an isolated and insular culture impossible.
More information at UNESCO.
Chief Roi Mata's Domain (Vanuatu)
This is a collection of buildings abandoned in the early 17th Century on the islands of Efate, Lelepa and Artok that are associated with the life and death of the last great chief of Vanuatu. The sites reflect the convergence of oral tradition and the archaeology of the Pacific islands up until the time of their conquest.
More information at UNESCO.
Cliff of Bandiagara (Land of the Dogons) (Mali)
Set in an outstanding landscape of cliffs and sandy plateaux and worthy of special mention is the spectacular troglodyte settlement of Bandiagara which is comprised of dwellings, granaries, altars, sanctuaries and meeting places or "togunas". In this comparative context, of particular note are the remains of an astronomical calendar and a unique cosmology that has been preserved almost intact through centuries of isolation.
More information at UNESCO.
The World Cultural and Natural Heritage Convention (1972) is an international treaty approved by UNESCO the aim of which is to identify, protect, preserve, revalue and transit to future generations the cultural and natural heritage that is considered of particular interest to humanity.
Considering the dual aspects of heritage, cultural and natural, the Convention reflects the interaction between man and nature, and the need to keep the two in balance. For this reason, from the point of view of the Convention, protection and conservation of natural and cultural heritage constitutes an essential contribution to sustainable development.
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