When most people look at a guinea pig running around in its cage they may not realize that these cute, furry creatures are actually an important part of traditional South American culture. Today, these small rodents are kept as pets by people around the world but they have actually played an important role in the lives of many of the people living in and around the Andes Mountains.
This small, friendly rodent was domesticated as early as 5000 BCE. Its earliest use was as a food source and they are still kept for this purpose in many areas of South America today. Guinea pigs are easy to care for and feed because they do well on a variety of different foods. A family can use its own food scraps to feed the creatures which are an important source of protein. Tourists who travel to Peru and other countries in the region are often surprised when they are offered these small creatures as a meal.
The guinea pig has also had great religious significance as well. Some civilizations, such as the Moche civilization worshipped the animals and often included them in their artwork. The Moche lived in northern Peru from about100 CE to 800 CE. Statues of guinea pigs that date from 500 BCE to 500 CE have been unearthed in various archaeological digs in Ecuador and Peru.
In many areas of the Andes, Western medicine is still not readily available. They still use the guinea pig in the same traditional healing rituals that have been performed for thousands of years. Folk doctors, known as curanderos use the rodents as a diagnostic tool. They rub the rodents against the body of the individual that is sick and it is then believed that the rodent can diagnose what the patient’s medical problem is. Black guinea pigs are considered to be particularly useful in obtaining a diagnosis. If the folk doctor wants to know whether the cure has been effective, the guinea pig may be cut open so that the folk doctor can study its entrails. Guinea pigs are also exchanged as gifts and are a part of many different traditions. They are often used in some religious ceremonies and social cultures.
In Western civilizations, the guinea pig has had a much easier life. In many countries they are kept as pets. They first appeared in Europe and quickly became a hit with the upper classes. Some members of the royalty also kept these creatures as pets. Queen Elizabeth I was known to have had guinea pigs as pets. These creatures are friendly and curious and their personalities have made them popular as pets even up to the present day.
There are many modern varieties of domestic guinea pigs. Many of these were actually established between 1200 CE and 1532 CE, when the Spanish conquest took place. Modern varieties include the Abyssinian, which looks like it has cowlicks all over its body, the Peruvian, which has long, straight hair, the Sheltie, which also has long straight hair, and the Texel. The Texel also has long hair but it is curly instead of straight.