Conversations with Skulls

By William J. Furney

In an airy, high-ceilinged room with creepily creaking floorboards in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the scenic capital of the tiny volcanic island that’s part of larger, seven-isle African archipelago belonging to Spain, is an extraordinary sight. 

Turn the corner into this historical space belonging to El Museo Canario, an archaeological museum founded by local intellectuals in 1880, and you’re sure to gasp at the upwards of a thousand bare skulls staring back at you. 

Am I the only brain in this place?

My first thought was Pol Pot and the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, a four-year genocide in Cambodia from 1975 that’s believed to have claimed the lives of some 2.5 million people. But this was no mass slaying of citizens; rather, spread out before me in soulless glass cases were hundreds of skulls, some full skeletons and other bones that several hundred years ago belonged to Canarians. 

It’s possibly the largest collection of human remains you’d ever see, remarked my daughter, Wallis, a student of Ancient Greek and archaeology who had spotted this place during an early afternoon stroll through the historical part of Las Palmas, called Vegueta. 

What would they think now, these long-departed ancestors of these sunny islands, of the masked visitors shuffling by in amazement? How has the world changed? Would they think that despite all our great scientific, medical and technological advancements that we are just as feeble as they once were, felled by a microscopic bug? 

Would these early folk be shocked at our modern-day arrogance in thinking we know it all, only, like a time-regression, to end up back in a primitive state, locked up in rooms and homes and unable to do much other than sit around and devour? 

As I stared at the hollow-socket skulls on shameless display for the world to see, I wondered what their lives hundreds of years ago were like. What did they do all day? Fish, hunt, forage? Find a partner, construct a rudimentary dwelling, make babies? Laze about in the evenings and night wondering what it’s all about? 

I felt as though my 21st Century ruminations on the former owners of these bones rippled out across time to form a connection between worlds ancient and new, a kind of ethereal bond between the living and dead whose only home was and is this planet. Would their spirits appear if I suddenly held a ouija board or seance here, as I’ve done before, including in a graveyard at night? 

The elegant Hall of Skulls is officially called the René Verneau Room of the Canarian Museum, in honour of the French palaeoanthropologist who died in 1938 for his study of the Guanches, the first inhabitants of the Canary archipelago off the northwest coast of Africa.

Wallis and I in the Hall of Skulls.

Later that evening, back in the south of Gran Canaria, Wallis told her archaeology professor at her university in England what we had seen, and the next day he emailed to give her some history of these islands, including that cannibalism may once have been rife. So I wondered how many of the museum’s lifeless residents, if any, had been gobbled by their fellow man. 

Curator Teresa Delgado told me several weeks later that the museum’s collection of skulls comes from “studies carried out on the island between the end of the 19th Century and part of the 20th Century” and that there was no cannibalism on this island back then.

“The aim of these studies was to analyze the shape and measurements of the ancient Canarian skulls in order to classify them by physical type and to explain their origins and ways of life,” she said. “Interest in this research led to the excavation of numerous cemeteries in order to collect skulls for the … physical anthropological studies.”

Some may consider the exhibit ghoulish and even macabre, but I found it a beatific display of frail humanity laid bare.

  • All photography and videography by William J. Furney.