Archaeology at the Roque de los Muchachos

A spiral rock carving, Roque de los Muchachos, Garafia, La Palma
A damaged spiral rock carving, perhaps a gift to the gods, Roque de los Muchachos




For centuries, goatherds have brought their flocks to the Roque de los Muchachos, the highest point on the island of La Palma. As the lower pastures dried out in summer, they moved to fresh pastures on higher ground. These days, farmers can drive home for the night, but of course that wasn’t the case 50 years ago, much less 500 years ago. They came up some time in June, and stayed until the rains began lower down. The best guess is that their wives came up every few days with food, and took away the cheeses. If the rains were late, they might still be on the Roque as late as September, when the nights start to get distinctly nippy. Perhaps that’s when they started offering gifts to the gods. Certainly, the mountainside is dotted with low cairns and engraved rocks, although neither is very noticeable unless you know what to look for. In particular, the rocks are carved in very low relief indeed, so that the carving only really shows with grazing light. You could walk right over them at midday. Many of the carved rocks have been found inside cairns, so they clearly weren’t for human enjoyment.

 

A meander rock carving, Roque de los Muchachos, Garafia, La Palma
A meander rock carving, perhaps a gift to the gods, Roque de los Muchachos

The goatherds slept in natural caves, or in little huts, just 1.60 m high, – the huts seem to have been only for sleeping, since it was summer, and probably the header made a new roof of vegetation each year. Curiously though, the huts always have a shelf in them, which seem to have been used to store cheeses. Milk and cheese were the main reasons for keeping goats in the first place.

A tiny goatherds' hut, Roque de los Muchachos, Garafia, La Palma
A tiny goatherds’ hut, very basic accommodation, Roque de los Muchachos. Of course, the goatherds would have left long before it snowed.

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