Despite the fact that archaeologists have been investigating the prehistory of Andean civilization for well over a century, the early indigenous exploitation of the guinea pig or cavy (known as the cuy in South America) is not as well understood as the domestication of other economically important animal species worldwide. What follows is a very brief introduction to what is currently known about wild cavies, the early history of their domestication, and traditional Andean uses of them that continue to the present day. This information will be updated and expanded periodically, though the reader is referred to the selected bibliography below as a starting point for more in-depth individual research. Please feel free to email me with your comments, questions, and suggestions.
Biological taxonomy and nomenclature is fluid and often disputed. The source of final authority for me (as for many other researchers) is the Mammal Species of the World list maintained by the Smithsonian Institution.
According to most biologists, guinea pigs are categorized as follows: class Mammalia; order Rodentia; suborder Hystricognathi; family Caviidae; genus Cavia; species Cavia porcellus. Some researchers choose to elevate the two suborders within Rodentia to the status of order; under this scheme, "true" rodents (squirrels, rats, mice, etc.) are distinguished from so-called "hystricognath" rodents (porcupines, chinchillas, capybaras, mole rats, guinea pigs, etc.). The distinction is primarily a semantic one, since both classification schemes acknowledge two major lineages among the animals known commonly as rodents.
The family Caviidae is first distinguished geologically during the Miocene and today consists of three genera and over 20 species confined to the South American continent. The family is characterized by various traits such as dental formula (i1/1 c0/0 p1/1 m3/3 = 20 teeth) and digits (four on fore foot; three on hind foot). In addition to guinea pigs (Cavia), other members of this family are Patagonian cavies, or maras (Dolichotis) and rock cavies, or mocos (Kerodon). All species of this family have been used as food by humans, though only Cavia is known to have been domesticated.
The domestic guinea pig was first described in 1758 by Linnaeus as Mus porcellus. In 1766, Pallas independently classified the species as Cavia cobaya (the genus name coined in Latin from the Tupi sawiya via the Portuguese Ťav’a/sav’a="rat"). Under the international rules for zoological nomenclature, the proper scientific name therefore became Cavia porcellus, since cavies clearly do not belong in the mouse genus (Mus). Five species of Cavia are currently listed by the Smithsonian, though this is not without dispute. All are closely related. C. tschudii is most commonly considered to be the wild ancestor of the domestic form, though some researchers bestow this honor on C. aperea. Many biologists do not recognize C. aperea as a species distinct from C. tschudii and call them both by the latter name. Other scientists do not find the wild and domestic strains sufficiently distinct from each other to be considered separate species and refer to both as C. porcellus. Some of these researchers consider a signification portion of the "wild" strain to be a feral population of formerly domesticated guinea pigs.
In South America, wild or feral cavies inhabit rocky areas, savannas, forest edges, and swamps from Columbia and Venezuela southward to Brazil and northern Argentina. They live in groups of up to about 10 individuals and inhabit burrows that are dug by themselves or by other animals. They are most active at night, when they forage for a wide variety of plant materials. In the wild, guinea pigs mate throughout the year. Females typically give birth twice a year to litters of 1-4 pups. Adults reach a top weight of about 700 grams. The pelage of wild forms is generally courser and longer than domestic short-hair breeds, though it is mostly shorter and straighter than the various long-hair and other fancy breeds. The color is much less variable in wild populations than among domestic cavies. It tends to be uniformly grayish or brownish and may be considered most similar in appearance to some of the solid "agouti" varieties. See example here
History of Domestication
Guinea pigs may have been one of the most important food sources in ancient Peru since well before Inca times. Unfortunately, the small size of their bones and the modern tendency to toss them in open garbage heaps--where they are immediately and entirely consumed by dogs--may be an appropriate analogy to explain why guinea pigs seem to be dramatically underrepresented in archaeological bone assemblages. This makes it comparatively harder for archaeologists to pinpoint cavy domestication accurately both in space and time. In any event, Peruvian archaeologists contend that domestication of the guinea pig may have begun as early as 5000 BCE in the Altiplano region of southern Peru and Bolivia. It is in this region that wild cavy (Cavia tschudii) populations can still be found to this day. Investigations at Chavin de Huantar in the north-central highlands of Peru clearly documents cavy exploitation at least by 900 BCE. Quite early on, the guinea pig may have been exploited on the coastal plain as well, and historic statues depicting cavies are known from the Moche region of Peru's northern coast. In solid archaeological contexts, the Moche Valley first sees significant guinea pig exploitation by 200 BCE. Archaeological evidence of cavy exploitation and breeding on the coastal plain of Ecuador dates from at least 500 BCE.
After the Spanish entrada into the New World, the guinea pig soon found its way to the European continent, where it immediately became popular as a household pet. Queen Elizabeth I herself owned a pet cavy, which may have contributed to its popularity. The name "guinea pig" is of uncertain origin. "Guinea" might be a corruption of Guiana in South America, or it may refer to Guinea in West Africa, where the cavy could have passed through on its way to Europe with the slave trade. Or it possibly refers to the gold coin known as a guinea, which is often said to have been the price one paid for the friendly rodent that squeaks like a pig.
Most people in the Andes region refer to the guinea pig, Cavia porcellus, by the name cuy, though there are many highly localized names for the animal (among them, jaca, wanku, conejo peruano, curi, acurito, etc.). Indigenous Andean cuy are thought to have been reduced in size through time due to extensive inbreeding, so larger scientific breeds (some attaining sizes up to 4 pounds, or about 2 kilograms!) were developed in Peru and are now often cross-bred with local animals (creating so-called mestizo cuy).
There is a great deal of biological variation among the native cuy population. Native Andean domestic cuy can have short or long hair, which may be either smooth or rough. The most common colors are dark brown, white, gray, or some combination of these. Black is the rarest color for indigenous cuy, and black individuals are often specially selected for traditional religious or medical usage. The average life-span is about 3 years, though native cuy can occasionally live up to 9 years.
As a species, cuy are extremely adaptable to a great range of climates, though as individuals they are highly susceptible to sharp variations in local weather conditions. For this reason, they are typically housed indoors. Cuy are traditionally kept in the household kitchen, where they are generally allowed to run around freely. Some homes provide them with cubbyholes or adobe hutches (cuyeros) for shelter. Most Andean families keep at least 20 animals in this fashion. Cuy eat a great variety of food, which is another reason they can be kept in regions as varied as the low, hot Amazon basin, the high Andes, and the arid western coastal plain. Alfalfa is their most basic staple food throughout much of this region, though cuy are always provided with a good selection of household table scraps as well and usually get all the water they need from the forage supplied.
Traditional Andean people rarely purchase cuy. A mating pair is a very typical household gift, especially to a newlywed couple, special guests, or to children. Despite the fact they live in the household together with their owners, individual cuy are never named nor are they ever considered to be pets. They are viewed in much the same fashion as are chickens. Women and children are the primary caregivers, charged with collecting the feed and cleaning the floor and cuyeros. Children can own individual animals within the family herd, where they are used as personal cash for purchases or gifts, somewhat similar to the way American kids use allowance money.
Cuy were traditionally raised solely for subsistence consumption within the household, though they are now often traded or sold since many remote regions of the Andes have entered the market economy. But despite their recently acquired exchange value, cuy are still primarily used for personal consumption at the household level.
Cuy are a vital part of traditional Andean culture, in many more ways than are possible to relate in this short introduction to their use. Besides their importance as a basic foodstuff, they are crucial in a variety of socially significant feasting rituals. Cuy have followed Andean immigrants abroad, and it is now possible to find guinea pigs offered as food in major North American metropolitan areas. Cuy are also integral to various Andean religious and ceremonial practices. In addition, cuy have long been used in the traditional medicine (curanderismo) of the Andes region. A live cuy is typically rubbed over the body of the sick patient (often squeaking when an affected area is reached), then split open to allow the curandero (or curandera) to read the internal organs and arrive at a diagnosis. There is a great deal of variety in traditional medical uses for cuy.
Research into the archaeological and historical evidence for early guinea pig exploitation is proceeding despite the inherent technical difficulties of this topic. As more archaeological projects continue to include zooarchaeology as an integral part of the research design, the history of cavy husbandry is sure to be pushed back further and further into prehistory. I will try to keep this brief summary current and accurate.
Dedicated to my past and present pigs.
For the purpose of directing members of the lay, largely English-speaking public to some of the most accessible and current general and specific references available on the history and use of the cuy in South America, I have included the following short list of relevant works. Fully comprehensive bibliographies can be found in these sources. The book by Morales (1995) is the most complete and current ethnographic account of the traditional uses of cuy in the Andes and is the primary source for much of the information presented on this page.
Brothwell, Don (1983) Why on Earth the Guinea-Pig? The Problem of Restricted Mammal Exploitation in the New World. BAR International Series, Oxford. no. 173, pp.115-119.
Lanning. E.P. (1967) Peru Before the Incas. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs.
Lavallee, Daniele (1990) Domestication Animale en Amerique du Sud: le Point des Connaissances. Bulletin, Institut Francais d'Etudes Andines, Lima. v. 19, no. 1, pp. 25-44.
Miller, George P. and Richard L. Burger (1995) Our Father the Cayman, Our Dinner the Llama: Animal Utilization at Chavin de Huantar, Peru. American Antiquity 60 (3):421-458.
Morales, Edmundo (1995) The Guinea Pig: Healing, Food, and Ritual in the Andes. The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Pozorski, Sheila (1979) Prehistoric Diet and Subsistence of the Moche Valley Peru. World Archaeology II (2):163-184.
Valdez, Lidio M., and J. Ernesto Valdez (1997). Reconsidering the Archaeological Rarity of Guinea Pig Bones in the Central Andes. Current Anthropology, Chicago. v. 38, no. 5, pp. 896-898.
Walker, Ernest P. (1964) Mammals of the World. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore.
Wing, Elizabeth (1986) Domestication of Andean Mammals. In Adaptations and Evolution in Biota of High Tropical Montane Ecosystems, edited by M. Monasterio and F. Vuilleumier:246-263. Springer-Verlag, New York.