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Home > Guinea Pigs > Guinea Pig Origins: History, Lineage & Other Facts

Guinea Pig Origins: History, Lineage & Other Facts

guinea pig and its babies

Everyone knows how cute and affectionate guinea pigs are. However, did you know that these adorable creatures have an equally interesting history?

In this article, we dive into the origin of the guinea pigs and several fascinating facts concerning their history. Keep reading to learn more about these little critters!


So, What’s Their Origin?

Guinea pigs originated in South America. They reside in rocky regions, edges of woodlands, and grassy flatlands. A group of guinea pigs comprises around 10 adults (a couple of sows, one boar, and their young ones). They live in holes belonging to other creatures or burrows formed in thick vegetation. Although they are diurnal (active in the daytime) as pets, they’re nocturnal in the wild (active at night). They search for food among a wide array of plant materials. Also, they must keep away from numerous attacks from birds.

Guinea pigs began to become domesticated around 2000 B.C. in the Andes region. The Andes is located on the western side of South America in an area known today as Bolivia and Peru. Initially, they were reared to provide food, but some people began keeping them as pets for their children.

At this time, you could not buy or sell guinea pigs. They were presented as gifts, particularly for weddings. They were also given as presents to special visitors or kids. They would mostly be kept in the kitchen, where they were free to loiter around the household.

Origin of the Name “Guinea Pig”

Credit: Pezibear, Pixabay

The origin of the guinea pig’s name is still unknown. These small friends are neither from Guinea nor are they pigs! Numerous hypotheses attempt to explain where the name “guinea pig” came from. For example, there’s a possibility that the name “guinea” was referring to their foreign and costly nature as pets. Perhaps, they cost a guinea, or 21 shillings, to purchase. During the 16th century, 21 shillings was a large sum of money.

Another hypothesis is that guinea pigs were usually imported via French Guiana. The name “Guiana” was commonly mispronounced, and their name was derived from this mistake.

Yet another origin could be that these small friends have big heads, short necks and legs, and round, long bodies. Guinea pigs also feed constantly and are vocal and smart, similar to actual pigs! In many other countries in Europe, the local name of guinea pigs essentially translates to “sea pig,” a nod to their imported origins.

The Italian name for a guinea pig is, “porcellino da India,” which means, “little pig of India.”

The Family of the Guinea Pig

Guinea pigs are members of the gnawer family. Their proper Latin name is Cavia porcellus. Although they’re in the same order as rabbits, mice, hamsters, and rats, they’re more closely associated with chinchillas, porcupines, and capybaras.

The contemporary guinea pig came from a species called “restless cavy,” or “cavia cutleri.” Guinea pigs were given this name because they can sleep with their eyes wide open.

Guinea pigs reside in family groups in rocky areas and grassland savannahs. They don’t like digging, so they mostly live on the surface. Still, they’ll utilize the abandoned holes of other animals and cracks in rocks.

The babies of wild guinea pigs are born outdoors because these animals don’t nest. Therefore, they’re more enhanced compared to the young ones of other gnawers. Baby guinea pigs are born with their eyes wide open. They’re also covered in fur and move fast.

These character attributes were passed directly to their domesticated offspring. Although wild guinea pigs look similar to our well-known cavy friends, they don’t have a wide variety of colors and types. They’re similar to rabbits and wild rats in that they’re usually greyish brown and sleek haired.

Guinea Pig_Mateusz Sienkiewicz_Shutterstock
Image Credit: Mateusz Sienkiewicz, Shutterstock

How Were Guinea Pigs Domesticated?

There’s evidence that around 5000 B.C., the indigenous peoples of present-day Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Andes region started domesticating wild guinea pigs instead of chasing and killing them for food. After all, capturing and domesticating them was more sensible. Still, guinea pigs were not considered pets but livestock like chickens, pigs, and cattle.

Guinea pigs were a crucial part of Peruvian society because many families reared or traded them for food. Newly wedded couples were given breeding pairs as presents to begin worthy colonies while they started their new life together.

When Did Guinea Pigs Come to Europe?

South America started trading with Europe in the 16th century. The guinea pig became a common import, though they were used mainly for amusement instead of food. Initially, guinea pigs were introduced in Europe by Portuguese and Spanish traders.

Afterward, there was a high demand for guinea pigs as exotic pets. Some of the earliest known written accounts of guinea pigs started in Santo Domingo, Spain, in 1547.

How Were Guinea Pigs Used in Religion and Medicine?

In Peru, guinea pigs played a crucial role in treatment and religion. They were thought to have the ability to determine the root cause of an illness, so they were usually rubbed against the ailing person. Unluckily, the guinea pig involved would be killed afterward and their intestines inspected by the medicine person in the locality. The best disease diagnosers were apparently black guinea pigs.

Now that you know the origin of guinea pigs, let’s look at a few facts about these amazing animals.

American Guinea Pig
Image Credit: Mary Swift, Shutterstock

What’s the Average Lifespan of Guinea Pigs?

The average life expectancy of a guinea pig is between 5 and 7 years. This lifespan is longer compared to other little pets like rats, hamsters, mice, and gerbils, all of which have a lifespan of only a couple of years.

Facts About Guinea Pigs

Cavies are communal animals with a solid, round body structure. They don’t have a tail and have short legs. Here are other common facts about these amazing pets.

They Are Social Creatures

In the wild, these animals reside in close family sets of between five and 10 guinea pigs. However, they can form a colony if multiple groups live near each other.

These Small Animals Are Quite Active

Guinea pigs can remain active for up to 20 hours every day. They only need to sleep for a few hours.

Cavies Must Eat a Diet That Is High in Fiber and Supplemented With Vitamin C

You have to supplement the food eaten by guinea pigs with a large amount of vitamin C. They have a deficiency of the enzyme required to synthesize it, though they can retain vitamin C for a short time.

A guinea pig running around in the garden_theianov_Shutterstock
Image Credit: theianov, Shutterstock


Guinea Pigs Are Amazing Pets

Despite their name, guinea pigs don’t come from Guinea in Western Africa and they’re also not connected to pigs. What is known about the guinea pig’s origin story is that they used to range from a royal Tudor pet to an Andean light meal.

These days, guinea pigs are well-known pets in households around the globe.  They are friendly and even like to cuddle. If they nibble on your hand, it is likely because they mistook your finger for a carrot! Also, guinea pigs are strong, and if you take care of them well, they will have minimal health issues.

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Featured Image: Naomi Marcin, Shutterstock

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