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Risco Caido and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape

Date of Submission: 29/01/2016
Criteria: (i)(iii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport of Spain
State, Province or Region:
Gran Canaria Island, Canary Islands
Coordinates: N27 59 7 W15 38 15
Ref.: 6081
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The nominated site is located in the mountainous central area of the island of Gran Canaria, one of the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Africa. These islands were the only inhabited in ancient times throughout the Macaronesian region comprising the islands of the west coast of Africa.

The first settlers, Berbers or amazighs from North Africa, came to these islands around the early of the Common Era. From these roots on each island it developed a unique culture that evolves without external contacts over a period of at least 1500 years. In this context, on the island of Gran Canaria it flourished a unique culture based on a rich cosmology that permeated their beliefs, rituals and settlements that reached its highest expression on the sacred mountains located northwest of the island. 

The site is in a region that extends across the municipalities of Artenara, Agaete, Galdar and Tejeda, which is presided over by the impressive volcanic crater “Caldera de Tejeda”. The area includes the Caldera de Tejeda crater and a substantial part of the Tamadaba Nature Reserve. Located within the Tamadaba reserve are “Parajes de Tirma”, another of the sacred sites of the ancient inhabitants of the island, and Guayedra, the place of residence of Fernando de Guanarteme, the last of the island’s kings.

The site hosts an outstanding representation of the manifestations of this unique island culture, including sanctuaries and troglodyte habitats, associated with spectacular natural events and the observation of the firmament. This complex of archaeological sites, landscapes and natural phenomena binds together what was the sacred homeland of one of the most extraordinary and least known island cultures on the planet. Together they make an associative cultural landscape, which highlights the powerful cosmological and symbolic associations of all its elements.

The sacred site of Caldera de Tejeda reveals the existence of multiple structures built by the original inhabitants of Gran Canaria, the main walls of which are aligned with the rising and setting sun, particularly at the Summer Solstice and the Equinoxes. In many cases, these are architectural structures, mainly artificial caves, used for rituals and as astronomical markers to control the passage of time. Such an abundance of astronomically aligned sites can only be explained by the need these islanders had to accurately control the passage of time and to know the changing seasons. The very survival of this island culture—caught between the sea and the sky—depended upon it.

In the cultural lamdscape a set of "star sites" which are fine examples of this unique archaeological and archaeoastronomical heritage and they are located in four main areas: Risco Chapín Sanctuary, Sierra del Bentayga, Mesa de Acusa and Risco Caído ceremonial complex. 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 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.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 (sanctuary) 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. Until recent times this ancient settlement known as “caves of the ancients”, was more densely populated than some of the bigger villages of the north the island.

Finally, 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, which it houses one of the most important ceremonial centers for the inhabitants of the island in ancient times. Current archaeological research clearly shows that this “lost temple” of the ancient Canarian people was also used as an ingenious and precise astronomical marker. As an architectural work, the cavecalendar 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 indepth knowledge of technology, building and astronomy. The spectacle of light to represent the solstices and equinoxes is a unique and unrepeatable phenomenon compared to other ancient cultures.

The whole of “star sites” in conjunction with the spectacular geological manifestations of symbolic and astronomical reference, such as the basaltic pythons of Roque Nublo and Bentayga, form an outstanding cultural landscape that emerged from its African roots.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

Risco Caído and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria host an outstanding complex of well-preserved archaeological sites and cultural landscape belonging to an insular culture, now extinct, that evolved in isolation after the arrival of the first Berbers or amazighs from North Africa around the beginning of the first century AD until the time, around the late 13th and early 14th centuries, when seafarers from southern Europe came to the islands in search of new spice routes and slaves for the slave trade. This is, therefore, an exceptional heritage that expresses a unique and unrepeatable cultural process.

The site is organised and can only be understood in terms of its cosmological vision. It is an exceptional associative cultural landscape that connects the landmarks of sky and earth (skyscape). This singular character determines the configuration of a unique troglodyte habitat and outstanding ceremonial sites presided by impressive geological and natural events, the most basic elements of which have been preserved intact until the present day.

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 megalithic sites of renown throughout the continent. Their outstanding value lies in how a proto-state 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 abstract astronomical concepts like the equinoxes.

The sanctuary and astronomical marker at Risco Caído represents a unique architectural masterpiece, both in terms of its conception and its functionality, 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 an ingenious marker that embodies ancient cosmology and sacred symbolism in the context of the ancient island cultures of our planet.

Criterion (i): The astronomical design and the construction techniques used at Risco Caído, which embody exceptional and unique geological, geotechnical, geometric, astronomical or luminotechnical knowledge, represent a masterpiece of human genius and creativity in a situation of absolute isolation. Its architectural design, which encompasses both religious and astronomical functionalities, constitutes an exceptional accomplishment within the realm of ancient rock art manifestations on islands.

Criterion (iii): This site is an outstanding and unique 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 the many cultures that have settled on the islands of this planet 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.

Criterion (iv): The cave settlements at “Caldera de Tejeda” and the surrounding area are an exceptional example of this type of human habitat in ancient island cultures, illustrating a level of organisation of space and use of natural resources that is both highly efficient and chaired by a unique calendar and an exceptional astronomical knowledge. The colossal geological backdrop and the skyscape fuse with the rock art cave dwellings, astronomical temples, structures and terraces, creating an authentic “cultural landscape” that still retains its symbolic and cosmological connotation.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Fortunately, and in contrast to other prehistoric cultures, written accounts of the native islanders can be found in the chronicles, which, although rare and dispersed, constitute a key legacy when it comes to understanding the key factors of the social organisation, rituals and astronomical knowledge of the people who inhabited these lands.

From the 14th century onwards, Portuguese and Majorcan voyagers started to make direct reference to the inhabitants of the islands. But most of the information available today was collected in the 16th century by those known as the “chroniclers”, when the archipelago was first conquered by the Crown of Castile. Their chronicles also bear witness to how the European conquistadores were impressed by this culture: they contain detailed descriptions of some of its structures, beliefs and social organisation.

The chronicles from the conquest give accounts of how the native inhabitants used a calendar that they followed strictly in order to organise their agricultural and ritual activities. All the accounts speak of the great significance of worshiping celestial bodies and that this calendar was based on the observation and recording of movements of the sun and the moon throughout the days, months, and years.

The accounts of acts of war also described, with some precision, the area around Caldera de Tejeda and particularly Bentayga rock, which was one of the last bastions of resistance of the native islanders against the conquest. A more recent complementary description was given by travellers, scientists and naturalists in the 19th century and the early 20th century. However, detailed research, categorisation and identification of this exceptional heritage has been carried out in the last two decades and more particularly since the discovery of the sanctuary (almogaren) at Risco Caído.

All the structures that form part of the complex of sanctuaries (almogaren) with astronomical and ritual functionality that have been referenced in the sacred sites of this part of the island have been kept unaltered. The fact that the cave habitat and aforementioned sanctuaries together with the basic elements of the area and landscape in which the early inhabitants lived have been preserved intact provides all the requisite elements upon which their outstanding universal value might be established.

All natural and cultural elements of the cultural landscape are protected and have a high level of conservation. All of the properties have been included on the Archaeological Chart and, as they include cave art, they are also listed in their own right as Sites of Cultural Interest in Spain and in accordance with article 62 of Law 4/99 on the Historical Heritage of the Canary Islands. The environmental integrity of the site under consideration is also protected thanks to its inclusion as a protected area in the Canary Islands Network of Natural Protected Areas (Law12/94), which safeguards the area against the intense development and transformation being experienced in the island.

Comparison with other similar properties

There are more than one hundred thousand small and medium-sized islands in the world, with a huge cultural and natural diversity, as indicated in Chapter 17 of the Río Declaration (1992). Together, they have more than 400 million inhabitants. Yet the World Heritage List, in stark contrast, contains little to represent cultural or mixed sites, including cultural landscapes, on these islands. The List is particularly limited in terms of values of cultural astronomy and related expressions.

Risco Caído and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria bear similarities to some of the few cultural or mixed sites on the List that do relate to ancient island cultures and do include astronomy-related manifestations. Only the following are of particular note:

- Rapa Nui National Park (Easter Island, Chile). The ceremonial platforms (ahus) upon which the so-called moai are erected, may be reinterpreted from an archaeoastronomical viewpoint in the light of new research.

- Heart of Neolithic Orkney (Scotland, UK). Important prehistoric cultural sites and landscapes reflect life in this remote archipelago 5000 years ago. The alignments of these complexes include clear solstice markers.

In any case, the astronomical character of these sites is collateral. Only two properties can be cited as expressions of extinct island cultures with stone monuments and cave settlements, and these lack demonstrable astronomical significance.

Some archaeoastronomers have also studied the presence of possible astronomical representations in emblematic Palaeolithic art sites, for example, putative astronomical representations of the constellations in the caves of Lascaux (France) and in Altamira (Spain). However, there are no inscriptions on the World Heritage List for cave settlements or cultural landscapes of this type in island territories, and certainly no mention any containing relics of archaeoastronomical significance.

In contrast, in the ICOMOS–IAU Thematic Study on the Heritage Sites of Astronomy and Archaeoastronomy (Ruggles & Cotte, 2010), there are cases of islands that can be deemed similar in that they contain sites of archaeoastronomical interest. The Thematic Study has identified some sites that relate to primitive island cultures such as the navigation temple at Holo Moana in Hawai‘i, or the Caroline Islands, that are considered manifestations of the astronomical knowledge of the native island inhabitants of the Pacific and their unique calendars. It is also important to highlight the ceremonial site of Caguana in Puerto Rico, which is considered the most important archaeological site in the West Indies, and Atituiti Ruga in French Polynesia, both of with had the possible function of observing and predicting astronomical events.

Following and completing this study, the Portal to the Heritage of Astronomy (IAU-WHC) has been developed to support UNESCO’s Thematic Initiative “Astronomy and World Heritage”. Rico Caido and the sacred mountains of Gran Canaria have been included as Extended Case Study. This also allows comparisons with other assets and properties of cultural astronomy. The sacred mountains of Gran Canaria is clearly exceptional in this context, in that it incorporates manifestations of an ancient island culture, now extinct, that created a complex troglodyte habitat and a unique cultural landscape in which astronomical culture played a key role.