Guinea Pigs are native to South America and are kept for food throughout Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The jury is still out on whether guinea pigs are so named because they came into Europe via the South American country Guiana, whether they came into Europe on slave ships from the West African coast of Guinea or whether they sold for a guinea in England
Their use as a food in South America goes back to at least 500 BC. The main importation into Europe occurred around 1500 after the Spanish invasion of South America. Queen Elizabeth I had a pet guinea pig which no doubt contributed to their popularity.
More recently in this country, guinea pigs have been used extensively in laboratory research.
In South America guinea pigs are used by the Curanderos or native healers. Black guinea pigs are the most highly prized. They are used both for diagnosis and healing. Unfortunately sacrificing the guinea pig at the end of the ritual is part of the process in many cases. Folk medicine in South America also has a number of ‘cavy cures’ for human problems including the use of fresh guinea pig droppings to heal a stye and guinea pig stock for hair loss.
In South America guinea pigs are kept in the kitchen and fed on vegetable scraps, wild forage and some concentrates. They are a part of the culture and often given as gifts. Increasingly they are farmed commercially by groups of women who form co-operatives.
The guinea pigs, known as ‘cuy’ are kept in large pens and treated well by these co-operatives as the women keep then in much the same way they would in the kitchens of their own homes. Commercially factory farmed ‘cuy’ however are not so comfortably housed. Although the cages are spacious enough, they tend to use wire bottomed cages that we would consider unsuitable.