Role of the Guinea Pig in Andes Cultures

Guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus) evolved in the Andes mountains well before humans arrived. However, once humans did appear, the guinea pig took on numerous roles in Andes cultures. With the rise and fall of empires, the cute cavy you know today spread across the world. In the Andes, the guinea pig is called a cuy.

Domestication of the Guinea Pig

Humans domesticated guinea pigs between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago, though it may have been earlier. The guinea pig is one of the few native animals that are still an essential part of Andes cultures. Domestication meant changes in size, temperament, hair, and litter size for the guinea pig.

It is worth noting that there are wild guinea pigs still in the Andes. However, the domestic guinea pig has been out of the gene pool so long, it is considered a distinct species.


In Andes cultures, the guinea pig is not a pet. It is an easy to breed source of protein. People kept guinea pigs in the kitchen, and many houses have a steep step into the room, so the guinea pigs do not escape. Typically, keeping as few as 20 guinea pigs can provide a family with 12 or more pounds of protein each month and is sustainable indefinitely.

Three guinea pigs on a table

Guinea Pig Healing in Andes Culture

The guinea pig is also part of traditional healing in the Andes. The patient lays down, and the healer rubs the guinea pig over the patient’s body. Traditionally, healers prefer darker colored and black guinea pigs.

The healer then examines the guinea pig. The guinea pig may be alive for the examination, but more often, the healer kills the guinea pig so its entrails can be examined. Theoretically, the guinea pig absorbed indicators from the patient’s body regarding what the patient’s affliction is. The healer then prescribes herbal medicine or a social regime to fix the issue.

Guinea Pig Rituals in Andes Cultures

The guinea pig was also part of the spiritual practices within Andes cultures. One of the significant ways was sacrifice. The Inca, in particular, were singled out in Spanish records. Archeologists have also discovered buried cavies with no external injuries near Inca settlements.

The other ritual aspect of the guinea pig in Andes cultures was divination. The healer killed the guinea pig, and its entrails read for hints about almost any aspect of human life. The practice is significantly less common today.

Long hair guinea pigs on grass

Guinea Pigs as Gifts

The guinea pig is also a common gift within Andes cultures. Typically gifted as a mating pair, guinea pigs mark most major occasions in a person’s life. Everything from childbirth to weddings featured the guinea pigs in one way or another.

Pets in Other Parts of the World

When the Spanish were conquering South America, they did bring the guinea pig back from the Andes. However, the Spanish introduced them as pets rather than food. That mentality stayed as the guinea pigs spread along the trade routes and led to the current mentality.

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