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The History of the Guinea Pig

Updated on November 4, 2007

Guinea pigs are neither from New Guinea nor are they pigs. Right away, that should give you some indication of the somewhat complicated history of the domestic guinea pig (cavia porcellus). Hang on to the bar and enjoy the ride.

Origins: Your Guess Is As Good As Mine

Logic dictates that in order for there to be a domestic guinea pig, there first had to be a wild guinea pig. However, although there are about twenty species in South America that look like guinea pigs and even make grunts and squeals like guinea pigs, they are a lot different from domestic guinea pigs. The wild ones that you can see today are all of one or two colors, are slimmer, have a different structure of digestive organs and very rarely poop, in order to deter predators from tracking them.

Perhaps there was always cavia porcellus, and they just no longer exist in the wild. Perhaps the direct species that sired cavia porcellus have become extinct. Or perhaps there was interbreeding between, say the cavia tschudi and the kerodon rupestris. Perhaps we will never know.

The Incas

What is known that the Incas were the first to domesticate, selectively breed and live with guinea pigs about 5000 years ago. Guinea pigs were originally bred as sacrifices to the gods and as dinner. Strains were created based not on their color or length of fur (as are today), but on the flavor of their meat. Even today in places like Peru and Patagonia, guinea pigs are considered livestock to be harvested and not pets.

When the European conquered the Inca Empire in the 1500's, they in turn were conquered by the cute chubby cavies all over the place. Along with the other treasures of the Inca Empire, cavies were shipped to Europe as an ultimate luxury and curiosity.

Where Did The Name Come From?

There are many theories as to why guinea pigs are called guinea pigs. The route from South America to Europe was very long. A place the ships rested was New Guinea, or thought to be New Guinea. When cavies were sold in England, they were sold for one guinea, which was a lot of money back then.

That explains the "guinea" part. What about the "pig"? Although this writer has not tasted guinea pig meat, she has read that the meat tastes like rabbit and not pork. So the taste of the meat was out as a reason for the name. The best theory available is that the "pig" part came from listening to the cavies' noises, which include a lot of grunting, squeaking and squealing. Even the German name for "guinea pig", Meerschweinschen, translates into "little pigs from across the sea".

In And Out Of The Lab

Look up guinea pigs in the dictionary. Oftentimes, the definition will include "something experimented on." Guinea pigs share the same quirk as humans in that we both cannot manufacture Vitamin C in our bodies. Both guinea pig and man (and no other creature) need to get their Vitamin C from food. And guinea pigs are a lot smaller and cooperative than people. So they inevitably became laboratory animals.

In fact, Vitamin C was discovered in 1907 because of research on guinea pigs. Guinea pigs lay their lives down so we could have medicines for diphtheria, tuberculosis, asthma and replacement heart valves, among other things. Guinea pigs are not the experimental animal of choice because of their long gestation and low birth rates. But guinea pigs are still used in some medical research projects.

Today, guinea pigs hold a cherished place in the hearts and homes of modern Westerners. Many people meet their first guinea pig as children. Guinea pigs make great pets for kids as well as adults. Although some guinea pigs today are still used to nourish us, and some to make us live longer, others are treated with the respect and thanks of a quirky and comical companion in this quirky and sometimes comical existence. It is good we have someone like a guinea pig to show us how to live.

The Guinea Pig Song

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  • profile image

    Stephanie 8 years ago

    I cant believe that guinea pigs used to be one of the main food sources! Some people still eat guinea pigs today! It's horrible! :'(

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    mac 8 years ago

    i have a guinea!

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    Hayley mcQ 8 years ago

    very fascinating..i always wondered why they were called guniea pigs.

    i always though it was becos they cajme from new guinea....obv not lol

    i have a guniea pig called oscar haha, and he always squeeks. and he does actually sound like a igket :P x

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    8 years ago

    hello

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    robert 8 years ago

    you are weird

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    ben 8 years ago

    if i drop a guinea pig in water and it dies is there any point in getting it out?

  • nicko guzman profile image

    nicko guzman 8 years ago from Los Angeles,CA

    Why would you do that.Wow you are ignorant.To get it out just scoop it out,but it will still be dead unless it only knocked out.

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    pbwik100 8 years ago

    Thank you SO much! You saved me from a zero on my science fair project!!!!!!!!!!!!:)

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    Sarah 8 years ago

    HI! I LOVE PIGGYS! I'm studying them for a term paper. I'm in training as a zoologyist!

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    fletcher and hugh 7 years ago

    We have 2 guinea pigs called Max and Willi.

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    Hannah  7 years ago

    I have a cute guinea pig named Henry

  • GuineaPiggie profile image

    GuineaPiggie 7 years ago from Chicago

    Squeaky and Bella are the names of my piggies. They also respond to the names Cute and Adorable. :)

    A bit of advice for those looking to add a piggie to their life - its very rewarding to own one, but even better is two. They love company! Doesn't really matter if its a boy/girl or girl/girl or boy/boy. If they grew up in the same habitat together there will hardly be problems if any at all. It's when the piggies are brought together from separate habitats then the fireworks go off. If you really have to bring two together from different habitats then make sure they are young - less than 6 months.

    Hope this helps!

    http://guinea-pig-supplies.com

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    luckyduck 7 years ago

    Yes but if you have a boy and a girl then you will probably have a lot of baby guinea pigs, so only get a boy and a girl if you want babies!

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    Jen 6 years ago

    Just a note on origins, it is not possible that there was always a cavia porcellus since there was a time that there was no such thing as a mammal at all. Someone recently did phylogenetic work on the Cavia genus showing the evolutionary relationship of the little domestic cuties to related species:

    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/1232488...

    The article is not in print just yet but we shall know soon!

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    COURTNEY 6 years ago

    YA THAT IS MEAN TO EAT THEM BUT ALSO THAT IS WAT THEY DO THEY DO NOT HAVE ANY OF THE FOOD WE DO SOO IDK!!

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    vladimir 6 years ago

    peru eat guinea pig and china eat small dogs, whose is soo bad. that is culture in each country, america central eat Iguana, so.. others countries eat animals, India don't eat cow, but all nort america eat hamburger so..

  • profile image

    koolness 6 years ago

    I think this is a very handy site. You seem like a very dedicated person, so congrats! haha anyways thanks for all the great information on guinea pigs! God bless you!

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    chomperwhomper 5 years ago

    I

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    snooki 5 years ago

    I LUV THOSE FUZZY GUYS!!!!!!!!!!

  • profile image

    snooki 4 years ago

    What the "F" this is not useful at all. This stinks. This websites the worst.

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