Guinea pigs are a species of rodent that originated in South America. They’re thought to have been domesticated as early as 5000 BC, and they form a persistent part of the culture of many people within this area - statues dating back to 500 BC as well as later art all depict guinea pigs in a variety of different forms.
South America was home to the Incas
After being domesticated by Andean people, guinea pigs remained popular in the area for many thousands of years, and were extremely popular amongst the Incas. The Incan people were a South American civilisation that lived in and around the Andean mountains from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, and were famous for their stunning works of art and breathtaking architecture. There’s evidence to suggest that guinea pigs lived closely with these people, and that for many years they were often found living in and around people’s homes as livestock. The guinea pigs were a curiosity, and so after the Spanish discovered the region in the 1530s, several boats brought them back across to Europe. Soon they were being kept in a number of different countries, and their endearing nature and shape made them popular pets for the children of wealthy families.
Only the wealthy were able to afford guinea pigs at first - at the time they were a strange and exotic animal that would have cost a great deal of money to purchase and look after. Queen Elizabeth the First is thought to have been an early guinea pig owner, and during her reign they became fashionable throughout Britain. Today, they are relatively cheap, hold the title of one of the world’s most popular rodent pets, and come in many more colours than their wild ancestors would have originally been found in.
Some guinea pig species still live in the wild
In some South American regions they are still kept as household animals, and used for food, medicine, and participation in local customs. In the area guinea pigs are frequently given as gifts, and rubbed against people who are suffering from illness as they are thought to be useful for diagnoses. Domesticated guinea pigs as a species no longer exist in the wild, but very closely related species such as the montane guinea pig can still be found living in their natural habitat.