The majority of people have pets worldwide. Guinea pigs are amongst the more popular ones. I encourage people to find out everything they can about their pet in general. Lots of people search about their behaviors and needs, but often they forget to explore information about their history and origins. This is also important because you will have a deeper connection with your pet the more you know about them.
So, where do guinea pigs come from? I am very sure that most people think guinea pigs live in wild Guinea, a state in Africa. Actually, this is not true at all. The guinea pigs were first domesticated in South America, in a region called the Andes, today’s area of Peru, Columbia, Ecuador and Bolivia. Even if guinea pigs are very common in every corner of the world, people still have little knowledge about them.
Guinea pigs are usually found in rocky areas and grassy plains. They do not burrow themselves but they have no problem using and sheltering in holes dug by other animals or by nature itself. The natural instinct of hiding is still found in these pets, so providing them with tunnels where they can hide will minimize the stress.
It is hard to prove a statement about an animal origin. Lucky us, the tribes in ancient Peru worshipped and often depicted guinea pigs in art. This is the reason statues dated between 500 B.C. and 500 A.D. were found in the Andes.
Interesting facts About Guinea Pigs
Guinea pigs (or Cavia Porcellus, the name scientists gave them) are considered to be rodents.
Guinea pigs are related to hamsters, rats, mice and rabbits. This is why they are considered rodents. However, it is very true that they are quite similar to porcupines, Chinchillas and Capybaras. Our little pets are descendants from an old species called ‘Cavia Cutleri’ or ‘Restless Cavy’ – the reason they are called this way is quite a funny one. These cavies have to be in alert all the time, being prey animals. They can’t even sleep with their eyes closed so that’s why they were called like that.
This wild species live in groups and are more developed than other rodents. Being born with their eyes open, completely furred and being fast movers are traits they passed on their descendants, our little guinea pigs. However, there weren’t as many colorful breeds as nowadays.
The three most common guinea pig breeds are the Smooth-Coated, the Abyssinian and the Peruvian. The first one is short-haired, the second one is fluffy and the last one can grow hair to the ground.
Why are They Called “Guinea Pigs”?
After finding out that their origin is somewhere in South America, the next question that should come to your mind is “ why are they called ‘guinea pigs’?”. This is a subject of some debate.
A long time ago, the only way you could get from Europe to the English colonies was via Africa. The North Atlantic was too rough for sailors back then. When these little creatures were brought from America to Europe in the 1700s by Dutch and English traders, they stopped in Guinea (a little state in Africa). Europeans thought Guinea is the place these pets were brought from and this is why they are called “guinea pigs”.
Another story says that guinea pigs are called like that because of a totally different reason. First of all, they might be called ‘pigs’ (even if they are rodents) because of the little noise they make. People might have thought they are little pigs because of that little noise. Secondly, they might be called ‘guinea’ because traders from South America used to sell them for a guinea, an old English coin.
Another hypothesis for their first part of the name is that people mispronounced ‘Guiana’, the name of the region where a lot of guinea pigs were collected.
The funniest explanation for their name is that the class of ships they were brought on to Europe was called ‘The Guineamen’.
The most interesting fact about their name to me is that almost every language refers to them as pigs or little pigs. In Latin, they are called ‘Cavia Porcellus’. ‘Porcellus’ means ‘little pig in Latin and ‘Cavia’ (from Portuguese) means ‘rat’. Also, in German, they are called ‘Meerschweinchen’, literally meaning ‘little sea pigs’. This is due to the fact that they were brought by ships over The Atlantic Ocean.
Anyway, there are a lot of hypotheses about how these beautiful little creatures got their name. A certain fact is that we will never know the truth.
How did Guinea Pigs Become Pets?
The short explanation: a certain and logical fact is that they were originally kept for food. This is very sad but it makes perfect sense. Over time, probably the children started to attach to them, making it harder and harder for their parents to kill them. This is probably how guinea pigs became family pets.
They were kept as we keep nowadays cows and pigs. They were kept as a continuous source of food. People would wait for them to breed, and after that, they ate the parents and so on.
They were a very important part of the Peruvian culture. They were often traded and a couple of guinea pigs were given as a gift to newly-weds in order for them to start their own farm of guinea pigs in their new life together.
The important role in Medicine and Religion
Back then, people had no idea about the scientific world. They needed some things to believe in and to act according to them.
One of them was that these little creatures were thought to diagnose diseases. A guinea pig was rubbed over a sick man’s body. When the guinea pig made a sound, they thought it was indicating the source of illness.
Also, black guinea pigs were thought to have the best accuracy in diagnosing people because the color black is their rarest in nature. Because of their special color, people thought they had to be holy.
They still have importance in this field, but not for the same reasons. Nowadays, people make a lot of experiments on them. They are used as laboratory animals for studies in toxicology, anatomy, pathology, genetics, nutrition and many other research programs.
Becoming Popular Pets
They were first domesticated around 5000 B.C. but they became popular a lot later in history. The fact that probably made people want guinea pigs as pets are that Queen Elizabeth the First had one herself.
They are still popular probably because of their availability. They are very calm, docile and they have a low tendency to bite or scratch so they are pretty safe for kids. Also, kids often fall in love with them because they are fuzzy, colorful and very cute.
I am amazed by their history. They are little pets that cannot protect themselves from a predator and they can only hide. Thousands of years ago, they were hunted for their fur and also as a source of food.
As late as the 14th – 15th century is the time guinea pigs were brought to old Europe. It is amazing this species still exist.
Nowadays, they are not kept for their fur or their meat. They live in loving families, they have everything they need, and the most important, they are loved and protected.
Something else we need to appreciate about a guinea pig is their ability to offer love as prey animals. Being prey animals, I would not expect them to enjoy a big human keeping them in a cage and playing with them whenever they have time. Once you earn a guinea pig’s trust and love, there is probably no other feeling more special for you.
We live in the 21st century and we will never know what was really going on several thousands of years before us. But this thing doesn’t mean that we have to stop being curious or to stop making assumptions. We can and we have to keep digging for information as much as we can.
Moreover, it is undoubtedly beautiful for a pet owner to know about the origins of their little friend. Besides being very thoughtful, having knowledge of any kind about your pet helps you exponentially in understanding their behavior and their needs.