Salvadorans are called 'guanacos' rather affectionately by some, perhaps disparagingly by others. Most Salvadorans are proud of the name. As is turns out, 'guanaco' has a long, important history and demonstrates the centrality of Salvadorans in the history of indigenous in the Americas.
A common word that comes from the same root is guano, which means bird poop, bat droppings, or dung in general and is associated with coastal areas and caves. Merriam Webster says that guano was first used as a word in 1604 in coastal Peru. Of course what they mean is that 1604 is when Europeans first used the word. When we look at the key words associated with guano, the one most likely to share a meaning with guanaco is caves.
As I have pointed out, guanaco means brother or sister, not literally but figuratively, as in one who shares a cave.
Looking for a common root word for caves I looked at the Austronesian languages of southeast Asia, where the first peoples came from. In Malay, gua or guwa is cave and in Indonesian it is goa. We find the root word for cave, whether it was originally gua or guana, preserved in the Austronesian languages, going back 15,000 years, when the first peoples sailed across the Pacific Ocean and landed at Monte Verde, Chile. Interestingly, in Malay gu means "a yoke, a couple, a pair, fellows, mates." Gua and gu seem to share the same relationship in Malay as do guana and guanaco in ancient Amerind.
I am not yet clear why the Andean animal, the wilder cousin of the llama and alpaca, is called guanaco. My guess is that in the earliest times the name was given to all these large animals as a term of endearment. Perhaps some were domesticated that early and even shared the caves in Peru. In any case, this confirms a common root language between the Andes and Central America and the migration of the ancestors of the Central American people from South America.
The prevalence of the Lenca people in carrying the Guana oral tradition forward is shown by the name of the guanacaste tree and villages named Guanacaste throughout Lenca speaking areas. In contrast, the Ch'orti's call the guanacaste, 'conacaste'. I believe that guanacaste means "council of the brotherhood/sisterhood." These council meetings were often held under the great shade of the guanacaste (left), leading to the naming of the tree. The ceiba, another large tree, is used as the symbol of the world tree by Maya. One can't help but wonder if the Lenca used the guanacaste as their symbol of the world tree. It would add layers of meaning to the concept of the world tree.
Guana is a common place name fragment throughout the Americas, showing its continued use over thousands of years among many different language groups:
- Guanacaste province, Costa Rica
- Baia Guanabara, Brasil
- Guanajuato, Mexico
- Guancora River, El Salvador
- Guanaja Island, Honduras
- Guanabacoa, Cuba
- Guana Island, British Virgin Islands
- Guana Island, Antigua (also spelled Guiana)
This latter island is interesting - is the second spelling (Guiana) due to an European error or was it reflecting an inflection or change in the way that guana was pronounced over time? If the latter, then we must begin to see Guyana and possibly Guinea (Bissau), Guinea, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, and Papau New Guinea all sharing in the name Guana - a name brought by ocean travellers who gave the highest honor "brother and sister" to the peoples that they met around the globe.
The term guanaco or at least guana also made it to Europe, starting in the Mediterranean. In Spanish we have the names Juan and Juana, which are clear derivatives of guana. The first peoples visited Europe, especially the Mediterranean, many times. The names Juan and Juana spread to many other languages in Europe and the Middle East. In most cases they are the most popular name, especially the male names. They still retain their original "brother" and "sister" ("of the same cave") meaning. No wonder that Brother John slips off the tongue so easily.
We have moved forward with the movement of the word guana. Now it's time to take a big step back. When researching this topic, I was surprised to be find a resort in South Africa called "Montagu Guana Cave Christian Guest Farm", located in the southwest of South Africa. Ignoring whatever a Christian Guest Farm is, consider the words "Guana Cave". There is a cave in South Africa called Guana, sharing a meaning found in Malay and throughout the Americas. The ancestors of the first peoples in the Americas, like the Austronesian peoples in Asia, left South Africa about 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. The word guana has been preserved for that many years, indicating a deliberate attempt on the part of the first peoples and their ancestors, to preserve key cultural artifacts from the old country, that is, Africa.
Moreover, this offers the strongest evidence yet for a living cultural link between South Africa and the first peoples in the Americas. Other evidence includes:
- Use of ultra long-distance running in both places
- Mining and use of red ochre (iron oxide) body and rock paint
- Clicking sounds in the languages (especially some Mayan languages)
- Potential references in the Popol Vuh to South Africa
Clearly for a Salvadoran to be called a guanaco is no small thing. In fact, figuring out the meaning of 'guanaco' helps answer some of the important questions of indigenous history in the Americas.