Where Do Guinea Pigs Come From?

Ginger guinea pig

We all know how cute and lovable our little Guinea friends are, but did you know they have an equally interesting and unexpected history? 

In this article we explain where guinea pigs originally come from and some interesting facts about their history.

The guinea pig family

Cavia Porcellus, to use their proper Latin name are members of the rodent family. Whilst they are closely related to rats, mice, hamsters and rabbits, they are truly more closely related to porcupines, Chinchillas and Capybaras (have a close look at the faces of each of these animals and you will see what we mean!).

Originally from South America, and in particular the Andes, the modern Cavy (Guinea Pig) is descended from a species known as ‘Cavia Cutleri’ or ‘Restless Cavy’ – so called because they sleep with their eyes open. These wild cavies live in family groups on grassland savannas and rocky outcrops. They are not burrowing animals, but live mainly on the surface. They will, however, use other animal’s discarded burrows and also cracks and fissures in rocks.

Cavies in the wild
Cavies in the wild

Because they do not nest as such, the baby wild cavies are born out in the open, and so are far more advanced than the young of other rodents. They are born with eyes open, fully furred and are very fast movers. These are traits that have been handed down directly to their domesticated descendants. Whilst similar in looks to our familiar guinea friends, they do not have the diversity of colors and types we are familiar with – they are smooth haired and generally grayish brown – similar to wild rats and rabbits.

Domestication of guinea pigs

There is much evidence that around 5000 BC the native peoples of what is now known as Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and the Andes began to domesticate these wild animals – rather than hunting them for food, it made much more sense to corral them and farm them. We should make it clear here that our piggy friends weren’t considered pets but livestock, as we might consider actual pigs, cows and chickens today.

Inca cuy vessel
Inca cuy vessel

Cavies were an important part of Peruvian society and most families kept them for food. They were often traded and breeding pairs were usually given as gifts to newly wed-couples to start their own valuable breeding colonies in their new life together. These little animals feature in much folk art and crafts from the periods circa 500BC to 500AD.

Guinea pigs in medicine and religion

Guinea Pigs also played a big part in Peruvian medicine and religion. They were believed to be able to diagnose disease, and were frequently rubbed again the sick family member. Unfortunately this wasn’t particularly lucky for the cavy involved, as it would afterwards be killed and its entrails examined by the local medicine man. Black pigs were highly prized as the best diagnosers.

Selective breeding

From 1200AD to 1500AD and up to the Spanish colonization of South America, the Peruvians, and in particular the Incas, selectively bred Cavies into more and more exotic breeds, many very similar to the types we know today in terms of color and variety of hair type.

old painting of guinea pigs
Old painting of guinea pigs

Guinea pigs arrive in Europe

When trading with Europe began in earnest from the 16th century onwards, the guinea pig became a very popular import, although it seems much more for entertainment value rather than food. First introduced into Europe by Spanish and Portuguese traders, they very quickly became sought after as exotic pets, mainly for the rich and royalty. The earliest known written accounts of Guinea Pigs date from 1547 in Santo Domingo in Hispaniola.

Guinea pigs in Britain

It wasn’t long before our piggies made it to Britain.​ There is a painting by an unknown artist dated at 1580 in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London thought to be the first British artistic depiction of Guinea Pigs, which is a portrait group of three children, the girl of which is holding a piggy in her arms.

earliest known English painting of a guinea pig
This is the earliest known English painting of a guinea pig

The oldest guinea pig remains in Britain date from 1575 and were found at Hill Hall House, an Elizabethan manor in Essex.

Where does the name “guinea pig” come from?

The name Guinea Pig remains a mystery. Our little friends are not from Guinea, nor are they indeed pigs!

There are many theories, all of which have some plausibility – For instance, it is possible that the Guinea part was a reference to their exotic and expensive nature as pets – that they may have cost a Guinea, or 21 shillings to buy – a princely sum in the 16th Century!

Victorian boys with their pet guinea pigs
Victorian boys with their pet Guinea Pigs

Another theory is that they were often imported through French Guiana, so they might have picked up a mispronunciation of their name, stemming from this fact. The pig part probably has much to do with the fact that they are short-necked, large headed, round, long bodied, short legged, and are constant feeders who are also very vocal and intelligent – in fact very much like real pigs!

In many other European countries, their local name means ‘Sea Pig’, almost certainly a reference to their imported status. Most charmingly, their Italian name – ‘Porcellino da India’ – means Little Pig of India, which of course throws another little verbal mystery into the mix.

And so there we have it, the history of our little piggies – during the last 500 years in Britain, Guinea Pigs have gone from strength to strength as one of the most popular and well-loved small pets in the United States and Britain.