Geographically speaking, El Hierro is the youngest island in the archipelago, born a mere 1.2 million years ago. Through the millennia, volcanic activity built up a steep island with a towering 2000m-high peak at its centre. But about 50,000 years ago, the area was hit by an earthquake so massive that one-third of the island was ripped off the northern side. The peak and the surrounding land slipped away beneath the waves, creating the amphitheatre-like coast of El Golfo. The ensuing tsunami may have been more than 100m high.
The island’s original inhabitants, the Bimbaches, arrived from northern Africa and created a peaceful, cave-dwelling society that depended on agriculture, fishing, hunting and gathering. They may have called the island Hero or Esero, possibly the origin of its modern name. The Bimbaches left interesting petroglyphs (geometrical etchings) on rocks and cave walls across the island; the most interesting is at El Julan.
French explorer Jean IV de Béthencourt arrived on the island in the early 15th century, and it was swiftly incorporated into the Crown of Castilla. After the Spanish conquest, a form of feudalism was introduced and Spanish farmers gradually assimilated with those locals who had not been sold into slavery or died of disease. In the subsequent quest for farmland, many of El Hierro’s forests were destroyed.
It wasn't until 1912 that the island became self-governing. Throughout the 20th century many herreños were forced to emigrate to find work, mostly to Cuba after a severe 1911 drought and to Venezuela in the 1940s. The island’s economy has since recovered and is now based on cheese, fishing, fruit-growing, livestock and, increasingly, tourism, and many emigrants have returned. The struggle now is balancing the preservation of the island’s unique, Unesco-protected natural beauty with the need for economic growth. More than 60% of the island is classified as protected land, limiting growth options. While this is great news for conservationists, as young islanders are forced to move away to study and find jobs, many see it as a problem.
Although El Hierro’s last major volcanic eruption was 200 years ago, between October 2011 and March 2012 major underwater volcanic eruptions took place off the coast at La Restinga leading to a precautionary evacuation of the town (fortunately, there were no casualties).