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Unlocking Secrets of Quanche Culture: Ancient Mummies Shed Light on Hidden History

From the cliffside path that leads down to the sea, about four kilometersaway, I come to a halt. This is the spot: a cave, its entrance barely visible. Ilook up at the looming face of the rock. I sense it staring back at me,beckoning with its stash: hundreds of caves, built over the centuries fromthe lava flows

Any one of them could be the cave we’relooking for—here, history has not yet been written.Within this gorge in southern Tenerife, the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands,a stunning cave was found in 1764 by Spanish regent and infantry captainLuis Román. A contemporary local priest and writer described the find in abook on the history of the islands: “A wonderful pantheon has just beendiscovered,” José Viera y Clavijo wrote.

“So full of mummies that no lessthan a thousand were counted.” And thus the tale of the thousand mummieswas born. (Read about the different types of mummies found worldwide.) Few things are more exciting than navigating the ambiguous edge betweenhistory and legend.

Now, two and a half centuries later, in the gorge knownas Barranco de Herques—also called “ravine of the dead” for its funerarycaves—we find ourselves in the place that most local archaeologistsconsider to be the mythical “cave of the thousand mummies.” There are nowritten coordinates; its location has been passed on by word of mouthamong a chosen few. The hikers who venture along the path are abivious to its existence

In the company of islander friends, I feel privileged to be shown the placewhere they believe their ancestors once rested. I crouch toward the narrowopening, turn on my headlamp and drop to the ground. To find this hidden realm, we crawl in on our stomachs for a few claustrophobic meters. Butthere’s a reward for subjecting ourselves to the tight squeeze: a tall, spaciouschamber suddenly opens before me, holding the promise of a journey to theisland’s past.“As archaeologists we assume that the expression ‘thousand mummies’ wasprobably an exaggeration, a way to suggest that there were indeed a lot, awhole lot—hundreds,” says Mila Álvarez Sosa, a local historian andEgyptologist.