|HEYERDAHL'S ISLAND PYRAMIDS|
Tenerife, The Canary Islands
A collection of seven islands 100 miles west of Morocco, the Canaries were named not for a species of yellow bird but rather a wild dog. The Latin Insularia Canaria means Island of the Dogs; Romans gave them the name, due to an endemic breed of fierce dog said to live on the rocky, wind-swept isles. Some years later known as the Fortunate Isles (maybe the dogs had fled?), thanks to a reputation for having an oft-pleasant climate. (The same year-round sunshine that today attracts more than 2 million tourists, most from the UK and Europe, to the commune of Spain.)
Until the 15th century the islands were otherwise occupied only by the cave-dwelling GUANCHES, who claimed the islands until slavers began arriving, capturing them and selling them on the continent. Other than some Stone Age tools, geometric cave etchings and a handful of ruins, it remains an essentially lost culture. They appeared only as small specs on the edge of navigation charts until conquistadors took possession of them, one at a time. The tiny island of La Gomera, for example, is where Columbus stayed on his voyages, and is still unspoiled today.
The islands are the tips of hundreds of volcanoes that first erupted from the seabed 14 million years ago. Teneguia on La Palma is the last volcano to erupt here, in 1971. TENERIFE, the largest of the islands, is triangular - 50 miles by 30 miles, rising sharply on all sides towards a 4,500-foot summit - lushly vegetated in the north, sunny and arid in the south. Its biggest town, Santa Cruz, is lined with vacation condos and permanent home to 215,000.
It was to the outskirts of Santa Cruz that THOR HEYERDAHL settled in his later years, to escape the glare of fame that had built in his wake after nearly a century of innovative world exploration. Known worldwide for his exploration of the Pacific by wooden raft - the KON-TIKI - and early excavations on Easter Island elsewhere, he came to the Canaries to write and relax during his final days.
During my own travels I've crossed Heyerdahl's path many times and always get a kick discovering that he has long preceded me. We've met up on the coast of Peru, on Easter Island, Fatu Hiva and the remote Tuamotu atoll of Rarioa, where the Kon Tiki finally washed ashore in 1949. Given my continued wanderings, I'm sure I'll bump into his ghost a few more times. (Just as I do continuously with those other lifelong sea travelers James Cook and Ferdinand Magellan, who despite their modest means of voyaging - hundred foot long boats of wood, few maps, lots of scurvy - went ... everywhere!)
Heyerdahl is author of one of my favorite quotes regarding the traveling life: "Borders? I have seen one, but I heard they exist in the midst of most people."
He first came to the Canaries thanks to a newspaper article sent him from Tenerife in the early 1990s while he was on an archeological dig in Peru. It hinted at the existence of previously undiscovered stepped pyramids at a site called Güémar, apparently built by the Guanches but long dismissed as just piles of stones left behind by early Spanish settlers.
Heyerdahl was long-fascinated by the way pyramid building techniques had spread around the world, from Egypt to Sicily, Mexico to Peru, Mesopotamia to Polynesia and now apparently through the Canary Islands. He quickly assessed that the Güémar pyramids reflected building skills and design introduced from the Old World and came to Tenerife to see for himself. He ultimately moved to the Canaries, marrying his third wife there, and stayed until his death in 2002.
It wasn't until Heyerdahl's arrival - encouraged by letter and photos sent by Canary island resident and fellow Norwegian Fred Olsen, who would later fund the beautiful museum at Güémar that surrounds the well-preserved pyramids and toasts Heyerdahl's career - that the connection between the Canary Island pyramids and pre-Hispanic civilizations was considered.
"I managed to save the pyramids just in the nick of time," he wrote in his autobiography. "A white patch on the municipal map of Güémar bore the inscription Las Piramides de Chacona. But though labeled no one knew who had built them and they weren't protected by any act of conservation ... because there is no provision covering pyramids in the Atlantic.
"By sheer chance I was the person who got to know about these pyramids - the sort of coincidence that made me feel like a puppet suspended on a string, gravitating from one island to another in order to 'discover' things known to the local population."
"One never discovers anything which has always been there, staring one in the face, ever since birth ... It was a Norwegian tourist by the name of Sorvik who decided to send me a cutting from a local paper with a picture of one of the pyramids. The text suggested that it must have been the work of supernatural beings, but the picture revealed that in this case ordinary mortals had been at work - people who had reached the Canaries across the sea and who were familiar with the stepped pyramids built on both sides of the Atlantic in the dawn of world history."
Heyerdahl's initial survey concluded they were pyramids rather than just piles of rocks based on a handful of experienced observations:
1. Unlike stones lying around in farm fields, these were built with angular blocks extracted from lava flows.
2. The layouts were very precise, suggesting they used ropes in the design. Each stone was also placed with its flat side towards the exterior.
3. Great angular stones were used for the corners and cut in such a manner to fit perfectly.
4. Carefully constructed steps rose to the upper part where a flat platform was covered by gravel. The steps were on the western side so that as you climbed up you faced the rising sun.
5. The pyramids were positioned to welcome both the summer and winter solstices.
When Heyerdahl 'discovered' the pyramids they were about to be built over by houses; schoolchildren had worn paths and shortcuts across the site without moving one single stone from the perfectly constructed pyramid walls. Old people on the island had heard from their grandparents that they had 'always' existed. Younger people seemed disinterested. Consciously or subconsciously the walls had been respectfully preserved, but the city council was on the verge of opening the area to new development, allowing streets to criss-cross the site, putting an end to both superstition and science.
The discovery suited a variety of Heyerdahl's long pursuits and he came to believe that the Canaries had been an important stopping-off spot for early supply ships between the Americas and Mediterranean. "Personally I had twice visited the Canaries in the hope of learning something of its aboriginal population, the people who welcomed the first Portuguese and Spaniards when they arrived. Among the Guanches in Tenerife there were a great many who resembled people of Northern Europe - but this was the appearance of many of the Berbers of North Africa as well as the legendary seafarers who, according to the Aztecs and the Incas, had introduced the civilization of their ancestors and taught them to build pyramids. Precisely for this reason I had visited these islands a good deal earlier; I was keen to know more about these seafarers who resembled us Europeans but sailed across the Atlantic with women and goats and dogs on board, long before the time of Columbus and Leif Eriksson. In addition they were familiar with the art of mummification and the trepanning of skulls just as in ancient Egypt."
The exact age of the Guimar pyramids is uncertain. For a long time - hundreds of years - they were thought to be just piles of stones accumulated by farmers to clear the land, while others thought they were structures, but built in the 19th century.
As recently as 1997-1998 a team of American/Canadian archaeologists carried out excavations to discover a cave of 25 feet where they found Guanches remains as well as goat and fish bones, bodkins, ceramics, stones and beads for necklaces, dating it to 680-1010 AD. They confirmed Heyerdahl's observation that they were built oriented towards the sunset on the summer solstice and the sunrise on the winter solstice, thus used as an astronomical observatory for the protection of the key dates of the agricultural cycle and to establish a calendar.
Where my travels have crossed Heyerdahl's routes - on Easter Island where he did some early archeology on and theorizing about the big moai, in the Galapagos, the Marquesan island of Fatu Hiva, the Maldives and on the Tuamotuan atoll of Rarioa where the Kon Tiki made its final crash landing - I've met a variety of people who knew him (including, on Rarioa, the grandson of the man who found he and his men wrecked on the reef). Even when they may have disagreed with his conclusions, particularly that Easter Island and Polynesia were discovered from South America, they respected him. To me he has always seemed the last of a breed, the kind of gentlemen adventurer who doesn't exist only as a movie cliché (see Indiana Jones) but as a real man who received as much pleasure out of sharing his stories as he did the discoveries themselves. He died in Colla Micheri, Italy in May 2002, of a brain tumor when he was 87.