Ruination In Havana

Havana, Cuba is an unsettling mix of old buildings crumbling to the ground, residents still inside, and a Carribian get-away for the foreign tourist. On the waterfront, Havana boasts a beautiful historic district, “Old Havana”, but stray far from the main streets and plazas and you will find yourself surrounded by neglected buildings. The ruination of these buildings tells the story of a government with limited money that chooses to prioritize the city’s appeal to foreigners above its safety for locals.

Old Havana is the historic district of Havana and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982 (Perrottet 2018). Since then it has received funding from outside sources and support from the Cuban government. Restorations of historical architecture (Figure 1) have won Havana officials dozens of international awards (Eaton and Lewin 2018) and brought tourists flocking to the city. Cubans benefit from the economic boost brought by the tourism industry, but those economic gains fail to offset the hardship of many families’ deteriorating residences.

Figure 1. Part of the beautifuly restored Old Havana, the Plaza de San Francisco. Photograph from Planet Ware.

In the ongoing restoration process of Old Havana, many people feel left behind. In 2012, about 7 percent of housing in Havana had been declared uninhabitable and 7 in 10 buildings needed major repairs (Rainsford 2012). Even when residences are repaired many families are displaced, since the government does not allow as many households back into the buildings as were crowded in previously (Perrottet 2018). Government programs work to rectify the housing crisis that has many people living in buildings that could collapse any day (Figure 2), but they are not addressing the problem fast enough. According to USA Today, “3,856 partial or total building collapses were reported in Havana from 2000 to 2013, not including 2010 and 2011 when no records were kept” (Eaton and Lewin 2018). These collapses stand in stark contrast to the beautiful historic architecture Havana officials work to preserve. The Cuban government is short on money and has to prioritize projects. Their priorities are clear; Havana is quite literally collapsing while a historic district for foreign tourists grows.

Figure 2. People continue to live in the crumbling buildings in Havana, Cuba. Photograph from Translating Cuba.

Allowing for or requiring destruction of “certain people and places, often in the name of humanitarian work” (Beisaw 2017) is a political process known as ruination. The humanitarian effort of preserving a UNESCO World Heritage site comes at a price and the people who die because they cannot leave the buildings their government has condemned are paying it. Looking at the ruination of Havana reveals a rift between the Cuban government and its people. The government has the authority to choose what will be restored and what will be left to decay. So far it has chosen to restore the tourist epicenter that brings in new-comers, and leave the people already living in Havana to fend for themselves. Ruination shows power and where that power lies. Cuban officials hold the power in Havana, and the citizens of Havana see the evidence of it every day in the ruination of their home.



Beisaw, April M.
2017 Ruined by the Thirst for Urban Prosperity: Contemporary Archaeology of City Water Systems. In: Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action, edited by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski. Oxford Press. pp. 132-148.

Eaton, Tracey and Katherine Lewin
2018 How Havana is collapsing, building by building. USA Today. accessed November 10, 2019.

Perrottet, Tony
2018 The Man Who Saved Havana. Smithsonian Magazine. accessed November 10, 2019.

Rainsford, Sarah
2012 Cuba’s crumbling buildings mean Havana housing shortage. BBC. accessed November 10, 2019.


Figure 1

Figure 2

Additional Content

Havana: The New Art of Making Ruins

Documentary about the people living in Havana’s ruins

Why Havana Had to Die

Why Havana’s buildings sunk into ruin initially

Decreasing Temperatures, Increasing Risk

When the temperatures begin to drop, most people mindlessly make the change to the colder season. From warmer clothes, to warmer drinks, a majority make small switches in their daily routines. However, this change isn’t possible for everyone. During the colder times of the year, the homeless struggle to stay warm, and stay alive. In an interview by Ari Shapiro of the National Public Radio (NPR) team, she meets with a homeless man named David Pirtle to discuss the difficulties he encounters on the streets. At one point, Shapiro asks Pirtle what it is like on the worst nights for him (National Public Radio 2012). Pirtle responds, admitting thatduring the coldest nights is just, you know, fear of not waking up in the morning. It’s fear of freezing to death” (National Public Radio 2012). Although, he then adds that one learns how to stuff their clothes with newspaper and develop an awareness of resources, such as hypothermia vans that drive around Washington D.C (National Public Radio 2012).

Figure 1: In cities, homeless people tend to migrate to air vents on the street in order to stay warm.

Those living on the streets find ways to make the area they inhabit their home. This idea of home, although it can be difficult for outsiders to understand, is often the reason the homeless decline opportunities of residence in shelters. Due to this preference, though, the homeless are susceptible to cold related illnesses, such as hypothermia. And that’s why the hypothermia van system was created.

Using the Washington D.C. Shelter Crisis hotline, a van is deployed to offer transportation to shelter, blankets (if shelter is refused), or medical help (Georgetown Ministry Center 2019). Service organizations rely heavily on pedestrians to contact van systems when encountering a homeless person that is displaying signs of hypothermia (Tillett 2004). 

Steps have also been taken to prevent police intervention on the homeless when the homeless take shelter in off-limit areas. For example, Simmons of the “Cold Hits Homeless Hard” essay discusses his work as one of Washington D.C.’s van drivers (Tillett 2004). Simmons establishes relationships with parking garage attendees in hope that they will contact hypothermia vans when homeless people are found in garages instead of the police (Tillett 2004).

Figure 2: Simmons on hypothermia patrol in his van.

The service of hypothermia vans may be relatively new and unheard of to most, but hopefully the information is spreading to the right people. Potential sponsors, volunteers, and those in need should all be well aware of the on-call vans. With an estimated 700 homeless killed a year due to hypothermia, the issue is pressing (National Public Radio 2012). Death from hypothermia can be easily prevented with the right resources, and it’s important the need for these resources is widely advertised.


National Public Radio

   2012     “Why Some Homeless Choose Streets Over Shelters, National Public Radio.  Electronic document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


Tillett, Scott L.

   2004    Cold Hits Homeless Hard, Street Sense Media. Electronic document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


Georgetown Ministry Center

  2019    Emergency Info & Hotlines, Georgetown Ministry Center. Electronic          document,, accessed November 8, 2019.


Images Used:

Image #1:

Image #2:


Additional Readings:


The Quabbin and the Catskills: Memory’s Role in Ruination

Growing up in Massachusetts, I went on a field trip to the Quabbin reservoir in western Mass, when the leaves were just beginning to fall. We went to enjoy the beauty of the water and foliage, but were first given a picture book to read about its history. Thinking back, the gravity of the history didn’t dawn on us. Learning now about the impact the construction of the Catskills reservoirs had on residents, it does.

Figure 1. A view of the Quabbin Reservoir from above

Due to rising water demand in the Boston area, construction began in 1938, when the Metropolitan District Water Supply Company acquired four towns: Dana, Enfield, Greenwich, and Prescott (Bourgault 2019). The Swift River Act of 1927 forced these towns’ residents to leave their homes (Ibid.). About 2,700 people were displaced and 7,163 bodies exhumed and reburied (Ibid). The MDWSC demolished the area’s buildings, built dams, and flooded it to create the reservoir, which holds 412 billion gallons of water (Ibid).

Figure 2. The well-preserved foundations of the Josephine Marcille House in Dana

Now, much of the Quabbin watershed is accessible to the public for outdoor activities, has several trails, and a park (DCR Office of Watershed Management 2018). Dana, which lost the least land to the reservoir, is memorialized at its town common and registered as a National Historic Place (National Parks Service 2019). Over the years, former residents have worked to keep the memory of these towns alive. At the Quabbin Park Cemetery, where many of the exhumed now lay, they restore and maintain headstones, as well as hold a Memorial Day service in honor of both soldiers and those whose homes were sacrificed for the reservoir (Godfrey 2018).

Figure 3. The restoration of a Quabbin area resident’s headstone

Similarly, NYC created six reservoirs in the Catskills to respond to rising water demands. The reservoirs displaced 16 villages and 4,464 people, and now NYC labels the surrounding purchased plots as environmental protection and recreation land (Beisaw 2017). Yet this land is hard to find, littered, and treated by adjacent residents, many unaware of their history, as private property (Ibid.).

This comparison reveals another dimension to the process of ruination: how the ruiners treat the ruins, both physically and symbolically. In ruination, the cause of the destruction or decay doesn’t bother to clean it up, but in its own way, NYC has, by helping to erase these places from collective memory. The city has restricted access to much of the reservoirs’ surrounding land, and kept the public plots barely accessible. It has tried to make these ruins part of the natural landscape, void of historical significance. That is, effectively, an attempt at erasure, not just ruination.

Figure 4. The stone memorial at Dana Town Common, reading “to all those who sacrificed their homes and way of life”

Massachusetts has helped to preserve them, but by saying it was a “sacrifice” rather than a “taking”. By making the ruins accessible and by labeling Dana’s town common as a National Historic Place, they’ve curated the memory of the ruins that they created, something maybe stranger than hiding them. Whether it was an act of respect, or a retelling of history to be quaint rather than tragic, remains to be known.




Beisaw, April                                                                                                                   2017 Ruined by the Thirst for Urban Prosperity: Contemporary Archaeology of City Water Systems. In: Contemporary Archaeology and the City: Creativity, Ruination, and Political Action, edited by Laura McAtackney and Krysta Ryzewski. Oxford Press. pp. 132-148.

Bourgault, Bethany                                                                                                         2019 Lost Towns of the Quabbin Reservoir. New England Living, June 26, 2019., accessed November 9, 2019

DCR Office of Watershed Management                                                                           2018 Quabbin Reservoir Watershed System Public Access Policies – 2018. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019

Godfrey, Paul                                                                                                                 2018 Memorial Day Services at Quabbin Park Cemetery. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019.

National Parks Service                                                                                                   2013 Dana Common Historic and Archaeological District. Electronic Document,, accessed November 9, 2019.



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Further Reading

Dana Common National Historic Place Registration Report:

Friends of Quabbin:

Letting Swift River Go:

Lost Towns of the Quabbin:

Material Possessions of the Homeless: An Archaeological Perspective


As the homeless population continues to be neglected, and in some cases ignored, there remains a misunderstanding of the material possessions and the culture that accompanies being homeless. However, a recent study conducted by doctor Larry Zimmerman, a professor of anthropology at the University-Purdue University Indianapolis provides insight through an archeological perspective that strives to reverse the stigma against homelessness within the United States.

Until recently, archeology observed homelessness through a historical and ethnographic perspective, “To date, homelessness has not been the subject of systematic archeological study” (Zimmerman 2011: 68). Although this methodology enables archeologists to understand certain aspects of homelessness, it fails to address the material culture of the homeless (Figure 1). The study of such evidence would not only provide insight and explanation as to how homeless individuals live their lives, but also assist in understanding what variables affect where they live.

Figure 1. Material possessions of a homeless campsite under Highway 290 South in Austin, Texas.

In 2003, Zimmerman began his archaeological study of the homeless population within the city of Indianapolis. The primary methodology of his research comprised of pedestrian surveys that identified a one-mile square radius in which the homeless population was most prevalent. Upon identifying this area of study, a series of excavations, random site surveys, and surface collections were conducted in which the volume and depth of materials found enabled Zimmerman to categorize each survey site.

Upon analyzing recorded materials from over 50 sites, each site was placed into one of three categories. Route sites, being the least occupied, offered limited evidence of sleeping or camping. Material use and disuse of this site included articles of clothing, food, and human waste. Similarly, short-term sites produced articles of clothing, food, and shelter. However, given the depth of materials found, it can be inferred that homeless individuals slept there for two or more days. Campsites (Figure 2), which produced the most material evidence, indicated common usage as materials found included long-term shelters for sleeping, cooking materials, food, and personal possessions stored in garbage bags or cardboard boxes.

Figure 2. A “No Trespassing” sign is displayed upon entering a Greensboro homeless camp.

Along with evidence of material possessions, which help categorize survey sites, Zimmerman suggests that surrounding structures play an equal role in the amount of activity produced. “ The range of homeless populations may depend on access to sources of food, medical care, and interaction with non-homeless citizens and law enforcement” (Zimmerman 2011:67). Given that route and short-term sites tend to be further away from structures that limit environmental exposer and privacy,  it can be inferred that this limits evidence of occupancy. Contrary, campsites offer increased evidence of material possessions as they are closer to structures and offer more suitable living conditions.

Overall Zimmerman, argues that homelessness is widely misunderstood, and despite popular belief, material possessions found at each site help better explain the culture of the homeless population within the United States.


Albertson, Nicole

2009  Archaeology of the Homeless. Archaeology Magazine Archive. Archaeological Institute of America, Accessed November 9, 2019

Aisen, Cindy

2008  Archeology of Homelessness. EurekAlert! Indiana Research. Eureka Alert! Accessed November 9, 2019

Zimmerman, Larry J. & Jessica Welch

2011  Displaced and Barely Visible: Archaeology and the Material Culture of Homelessness. Historical Archaeology. vol. 45, no. 1, 2011, pp. 67–85., doi:10.1007/bf03376821.


McLaughlin, Nancy

2016  City to Disband Homeless Camp: ‘Where Are We Supposed to Go. Greensboro News and Record. News & Record Accessed November 9, 2019.

Rich, Davis

2019 Homeless in Texas. The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune. Accessed November 9, 2019

Additional Content:

It’s time to expand our grossly inadequate understanding of homelessness

What Other Cities Can Learn From Los Angeles’ Efforts to End Homelessness


What’s Up Dogs?

In early October, the skeletal remains of a dog were found right at Sechin, a 4,000-year-old site located in the Casma Valley in the northern part of Peru. The Project Director of the site Mónica Suárez said that there was also some yellow-brown fur and paw pads found preserved with the bones. The dog is estimated to be from around 1,000 A.D. While the remains are in the process of being further analyzed to discover the dog’s breed and how old it was when it died, but from the preliminary investigation, it is suggested that the dog, “was a native breed from the prehispanic era that was used in the temple.” It will be interesting to learn more about the people from the Casma Valley and how they not only lived their lives but interacted with the other forms of life around them. For example, whether the dogs like the one found last month were domesticated or not (The History Blog 2019).

Skeletal remains of a dog found in Peru this past October. Credit to the Sechin Archaeology Project, 2019

The domesticated dog. Credit to Jake Kaplan, 2019

Domestication, by definition, involves a relationship between humans and an animal population or target plant. Zeder (2012), defined domestication as a relationship where the humans benefit more and the non-human doesn’t have as much control, or where it is a mutualistic relationship between the human and non-human (162). Zeder identifies three different pathways into animal domestication (178): How they are initiated, the direction they take, and the length of time is takes to domesticate them.

Dogs are the oldest domesticated animal. Evidence suggests that they descended from ancient wolves and began being domesticated by humans during the late Glacial and early Holocene periods (14,000-9,000 years ago, BP). According to a paper written by Ovodov et al (2011) based on some remains found in the Altai Mountains in Southern Siberia that dated back to around 33,000 years ago, questions how long humans have been domesticating them? While the study did not find a relation between the remains found and modern domestic dogs, it did show possible evidence of domestication that was interrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum (AKA the last ice age). The bond between humans and domesticated dogs eventually formed forms of bonds that was more than just mutually benefitting from each other. The placement of dogs in human burials suggests that a greater bond was formed and continues to be prevalent in society today (Zeder 172).


So what were the dogs whose remains were discovered in the Casma Valley in relation to the people that once lived there? Were they there as workers, companions, or both? Were they even domesticated in the first place? Hopefully the further investigation and research of Dr. Suárez and her team will reveal more answers about man’s (or women’s) best friends.



Further Readings:

Russell, Nerissa

2011 Dogs: Domestication and the Development of a Social Bond by Darcy F.

Morey. American Anthropologist 113(4):688-689.


Simon, Scott

2015 Real People, Real Dogs, and Pigs for the Ancestors: The Moral Universe of

“Domestication” in Indigenous Taiwan. American Anthropologist 117(4):693-709.





     2019 Well-Preserved Dog Remains Found in Peru. ed. Vol. 2019, The History Blog.



     2019 Well-Preserved Dog Remains Unearthed in

     Peru. ed. Vol.

2019, Archaeology Magazine: A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America,


Ovodov, Nikolai D., Crockford, Susan J.,Kuzmin, Yaroslav V., Higham, Thomas F. G.,

Hodgins, Gregory W. L., Plicht, Johannes

2011 A 33,000-Year-Old Incipient Dog from the Altai Mountains of Siberia: Evidence of

the Earliest Domestication Disrupted by the Last Glacial Maximum. PLoS One 



Zeder, Melinda A.

2012 The Domestication of Animals. The Journal of Anthropological Research 


The History of House Cats: What Qualifies as Domestication?

“In its simplest form, to domesticate an animal means to tame it, through breeding and training, to need and accept the care of humans.” (Ault, 2015). By this definition, humans have been domesticating dogs for roughly 30,000 years, ever since they diverged from their wolf ancestors and came to rely on their human masters for food, shelter, and companionship (Ault, 2015). Other mammals that are commonly kept as pets or livestock have similar histories of being controlled and selectively bred by humans, with one notable exception. When it comes to cats, the question is not how long they have been domesticated, but whether they have ever truly been domesticated at all.

In 2017, an international team of scientists led by University of Leuven geneticist Claudio Ottoni published the results of a project in which they analyzed the mitochondrial DNA of over 200 cats whose dates ranged from about 9,000 years ago to the present (Newitz, 2017). The team identified two major waves of domestication that contributed to the role of cats in human society today. The first took place in the Fertile Crescent roughly 7,500 years ago, when wildcats from Anatolia started hanging around human settlements due to the presence of mice and rodents (Ottoni, 2017). In a way, these cats domesticated themselves by inadvertently building a symbiotic relationship with humans in farming communities: humans’ crops attracted rodents, and it was beneficial to both parties if cats ate those rodents (Tufts, 2017). By the time of the Mediterranean “classical era,” most ships’ captains kept a cat onboard in order to take care of vermin, which allowed these wildcats to spread along shipping routes (Figure 1) (Newitz, 2017).

Figure 1. Locations of wildcat clades in the world today. Picture by Nature Ecology & Evolution

The second major wave of domestication occurred during the Greek and Roman periods, when the popularity of Egyptian cats led to a massive migration of cats descended from the North African F. s. lybica to Europe. These Egyptian cats spread as far north as the Baltic Sea and as far east as Iran by the 8th century AD, which significantly increased the presence of f. s. lybica in the overall house cat gene pool (Ottoni, 2017).

Figure 2. A blotched tabby, possibly the first human-created cat breed. Photograph by Vladislav Starozhilov.

Ottoni’s research team did not find evidence of humans breeding cats until the Middle Ages, when the human-created “blotched tabby” (Figure 2) emerged. Compared to domestic dogs, who have been more or less completely controlled by humans for many millennia, humans have been breeding cats for less than 1,000 years (Newitz, 2017). Furthermore, since cats have not been bred as selectively as dogs, they have been able to retain their hunting skills in a way that dogs and other domestic animals have not. In fact, the genes of felis catus (the average housecat) and felis silvestris (the European wildcat) are nearly identical (Ault, 2015). With this information in mind, is it appropriate to call a house cat “domestic” if it is still capable of surviving in the wild on its own?

Additional Reading:

On the cultural history of house cats:

On the domestication of many species of pets and livestock:


Ault, Alicia.

   April 30, 2015   Ask Smithsonian: Are Cats Domesticated?, accessed November 3, 2019.

Newitz, Annalee.

   June 19, 2017   Cats are an extreme outlier among domestic animals. Ars Technica., accessed November 3, 2019.

Ottoni, C.; Neer, W. V.; Cupere, B. D.; Daligault, J.; Guimaraes, S.; Peters, J.; Spassov, N.; Prendergast, M. E.; Boivin, N. L.; Morales-Muñiz, A. et al.

   June 19. 2017   The Complex Domestication of Cats. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History., accessed November 3, 2019.

Tufts Catnip.

   August 2017   The Domestication of Cats. Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University., accessed November 3, 2019.

Anyang Mortuary Puppies: Zooarchaeology Sees Anyang Society from Bones

Zooarchaeology entails the study of both microscopic chemical compounds and macroscopic societies and cultures. Its ability to see large through small is perfectly exemplified by the study of Anyang mortuary puppies. Located in the Central Plains of China (Figure 1), the city houses the remains of mortuary puppies from the Bronze Age, circa 1250 to 1050 BCE. Defying the norm of ancient Chinese dog burials, the sacrificed juvenile dogs provoke examinations of the social, cultural, and economic context of the settlement.

Figure 1. Map of China’s Central Plains, including Anyang. From Li & Campbell (2019).

Anyang’s neighboring Bronze Age cultural regions rarely carry bone remains of dogs less than six months of age. Most lived for 12 to 18 months, fulfilling an ideal age and death pattern for meat production, as it yields maximized animal size. However, Anyang differs (Figure 2). Among the 84 dog remains discovered in the Xiaomintou tomb, 37% lived less than six months and 73% less than one year (Li & Campbell 2019:169). This suggests that these dogs were not killed for consumption; their uniformly premature death also negates the claim that they were buried sentimentally as pets. It raises two big questions: one of their origins, another of their early demise.

Figure 2. “Waist pit” dog interments in Dasikongcun tomb, Anyang. Photo from Institute of Archaeology, 2014, vol. 2, pp. 2, plate 39.

Li and Campbell (2019:169) suggest that Anyang’s Bronze Age society may have a specialized compartment that supplies juvenile dogs for ritual purposes. According to them, the local mortuary practice of pairing the deceased with puppies would require an adult dog population of over 500 year-round. Moreover, surviving oracle-bone inscriptions document the governmental procurement of hundreds of dogs in a short time for royal rituals. This implies a somewhat professional dog economy, where canine husbandry and distribution were mature enough to support the local population and official events of massive scale.

The authors endorse two theories regarding the dogs’ young age. They propose that juvenile may be chosen because a shorter life span equates less sentimental attachment from humans. Though it contains referential value, this theory borders on ethnocentrism, since viewing puppies as cute pets of emotional attachment is a modern Western interpretation, and the emotional appeal of juvenile dogs is contingent upon local Anyang ontologies. Another practical explanation stands: sacrificing juvenile puppies rather than dogs reared to maturity is more economic. This links the dogs to locally abundant miniature, unfinished, and fake grave goods, suggesting the Anyang society’s cession of material, economic capital to symbolic capital.

Although the Anyang burial sites supply only ecofacts, they solicit conversations of much grander scales relating to the society, culture, and economy. By virtue of their taxon and age, the bone remains invite investigations of the larger background that created and disposed of them. Beyond the anthrosphere, they shed light on temporally removed human-animal relationships. The Anyang mortuary puppies, among with other Bronze Age dog burials, illuminate a fluid, spectral construct of animality, ranging from the lowest and inanimate as food and the highest and potent as pseudo-human companions. Beyond the juvenile bone remains, beyond the Bronze Age, such range of human-animal interconnections continue to this day.


Works Cited

Li, Zhipeng, and Roderick Campbell.

    2019 Puppies for the Ancestors: The many roles of Shang dogs. Archaeological    

    Research in Asia, vol. 17, pp. 161-72.


Further Readings

Savino di Lernia, Mary Anne Tafuri, Marina Gallinaro, Francesca Alhaique, Marie Balasse, Lucia Cavorsi, Paul D. Fullagar, Anna Maria Mercuri, Andrea Monaco, Alessandro Perego, and Andrea Zerboni.

    2013 Inside the “African Cattle Complex”: Animal Burials in the Holocene Central 

    Sahara. Public Library of Science.


Thomas Cucchi, Lingling Dai, Marie Balasse, Chunqing Zhao, Jiangtao Gao, Yaowu Hu, Jing Yuan, and Jean-Denis Vigne.

    2016 Social Complexification and Pig (Sus scrofa) Husbandry in Ancient China: A 

    Combined Geometric Morphometric and Isotopic Approach. Public Library of    


Guinea Pigs – Friends, and Food

Most people will recognize the guinea pig as a common, adorable household pet (Figure 1).  Most people will also find it hard to imagine these fur babies being served on a plate for lunch, but that is exactly what one can find when examining the dishes and delicacies of the Andes. Locally known as cuy (coo-ee), guinea pigs were also the objects of ritual acts as some evidence has indicated (Hirst 2019; Valdez 2019; Sandweiss 1997).

A guinea pig dressed as a mermaid

Figure 1. A domestic guinea pig that is ready for Halloween. Photo by PetSmart.

Domestication of cuy could have started as early as 5000 BCE, but domestication became evident by 2500 BCE (LeFebvre 2014:18).  The domesticated variant of cuy are generally bigger, have more fur colors, and have larger litter sizes, as opposed to the smaller, wild cuy that are either gray or brown (Forstadt 2001). The change in litter size and overall size, under human selection, makes sense from the perspective of cuy as a once-staple food source; in fact, many of the earliest guinea pigs have been found charred and with cut marks, showing their use as food (Sandweiss 1997:49).

Information about the roles that cuyes played in prehistoric Andean society is limited, however, by their underrepresentation in the archaeological record. Many archaeologists have fallaciously concluded that Andean diet mainly consisted of South American camelids based on this absence. It is helpful, then, that guinea pigs are still commonly being raised in Andean communities. Ethnographic accounts show that cuy feces is used as fertilizer and, after consumption of the cuy, cuy bones are often fed to dogs (Valdez 1997:897). If modern Andean families maintain the tradition of their prehistoric ancestors, this could well explain the rarity of cuy remains at Andean sites.

Two guinea pigs are held in the lap of a person; they are in little dresses

Figure 2. Guinea pigs are dressed up, paraded, and celebrated for a Peruvian national holiday; they will soon be eaten. Photo by The Telegraph.

Despite the relative absence of cuyes in the archaeological record, ethnographic accounts can provide insights about the role of the cuy in Andean culture.  Today, a mating pair of cuyes is a typical gift to newlyweds, special guests, or children (Forstadt 2001). Rather than as pets, cuyes are treated in a similar manner to chickens with the exception that there are entire festivals dedicated to them (Figure 2).

Guinea pig remains with colorful strings on it

Figure 3. A buried guinea pig that is adorned with colorful strings. Photo by Lidio Valdez.

This is not to say there is no evidence of ritual behavior around cuyes in ancient Andes.  Cuy effigy pots have been found from the Moche people (Hirst 2019) and, in a recent excavation, Valdez (2019) found one hundred cuy remains beneath ancient Incan buildings next to a plaza.  Many of the remains had colorful strings in places of necklaces and earrings. None of them showed signs of external injury, and most of them were juvenile (Figure 3). The ritual treatment of these cuyes are similar with Spanish descriptions of Incan sacrifices of cuyes.

The attitude towards cuyes as food and not friends is no longer exclusive to South America–it is actually a trend that is following Andean expats to North America. And it’s not just exotic attraction that draws some North American patrons, but also the low-carbon impact of guinea pig husbandry as opposed to beef.  A guinea pig herd “increase[s] dramatically with very little care” (Valdez 1997:896), requires very little land, and needs much less food.


Further Reading:

NPR – From Pets To Plates: Why More People Are Eating Guinea Pigs

BBC – Guinea Pigs: A popular Peruvian delicacy

The Spruce Eats – Traditional Andean Cuisine: Guinea Pig



Forstadt, Michael S.

2001  History of the Guinea Pig. CavyHistory. Electronic Document.

Hirst, Kris K.

2019  The History and Domestication of Guinea Pigs. ThoughtCo. Electronic Document.

LeFebvre, Michelle J. and Susan D. deFrance

2014  Guinea Pigs in the Pre-Columbian West Indies. The Journal of Island and Coastal

  Archaeology 9(1):16-44.

Sandweiss, Daniel H. and Elizabeth S. Wing

1997  Ritual Rodents: The Guinea Pigs of Chincha, Peru. Journal of Field Archaeology


Valdez, Lidio M.

2019  Inka sacrificial guinea pigs from Tambo Viejo, Peru. International Journal of

  Osteoarchaeology 29:595– 601.

Valdez, Lidio M. and J. Ernesto Valdez

1997  Reconsidering the Archaeological Rarity of Guinea Pig Bones in the Central Andes.

  Current Anthropology 38(5):896-898.



Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Figure 3.

Cats: From Wild Animals to Divine Beings

For thousands of years, dogs have been seen as man’s best friend, and have been trained and genetically chosen to be of the best use to their human owners.  But what about cats? In Egypt, cats are a central component of culture.  The first evidence of cats in Egypt dates to approximately 5,000 years ago during the Egyptian Predynastic period (Baldwin 1975:431). There is no proof that these cats were domesticated, but early Egyptians did not discourage the felines from living with them (Baldwin 1975:431).  The agricultural lifestyle early Egyptians created meant that rodents were attracted to the farms. Cats flocked to the area, and the humans appreciated the pest control (Baldwin 1975:432).  The cats’ hunting skills were valuable to people, so people worked hard to protect the felines.  Some people valued the animals so much that they began keeping them as pets (Baldwin 1975:432).  The Egyptians valued cats so much that similar to other communities’ burial practices with dogs, they would bury them alongside humans (Baldwin 1975:431).  Humans enjoyed the company of cats, and due to their fondness for sun-bathing, they soon became associated with the sun god, Ra (Diesel 2008:79).  Now cats weren’t only a pet or a form of pest-control, they also were associated with religion.

It’s important to note that the Egyptians have never viewed cats as being deities. They observed their behavior and created gods and goddesses based off of those observations using the same process that is used for other animals like dogs, snakes, and crocodiles (Wamsley 2018). Many cat-like gods were created, but the most well-known one is Bastet (Figure 1), the cat-headed goddess who is known for being nurturing and fierce, and is associated with the ideas of fertility, domesticity and protection (Diesel 2008:81-82).

Figure 1. A bronze statue representing the goddess Bastet found at a tomb near Saqqara, Egypt.  Image: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities


Cats have been perceived this way for thousands of years, and thousands of them have been mummified and buried in their own cemeteries to reflect their association to the gods and importance to the people around them (Baldwin 1975:434).  Archaeologists interested in Egyptian culture find mummified cats often, but a recent discovery at the 4,500-year-old tomb at the Saqqara site just outside of Cairo has led to further discoveries surrounding the importance of animals in Egyptian culture (Wamsley 2018). Dating to the Fifth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom, this newly discovered tomb contained dozens of mummified cats, 100 wooden cat statues (Figure 2) , and a bronze statue of Bastet (Wamsley 2018).  The Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities hopes that these artifacts will encourage tourists to learn more about Egyptian history and the role cats have played in shaping Egyptian culture (Wamsley 2018).

Figure 2. One of the wooden cat statues found at the Saqqara site.  Image: Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.


Baldwin, James A.
1975 Notes and Speculations on the Domestication of the Cat in Egypt. Anthropos 70(3/4):428-448.

Diesel, Alleyn
2008 Felines and Female Divinities: The Association of Cats with Goddesses, Ancient and Contemporary. Journal for the Study of Religion 21(1):78-84.

Wamsley, Laurel
2018 Archaeologists Discover Dozens Of Cat Mummies, 100 Cat Statues In Ancient Tomb. Accessed 2 November 2019, NPR.


Figure 1.

Figure 2.

See More:

To see more artistic representations of Egyptian cats and learn about their divine qualities:

To learn more about why cats have ‘divine energy’:


The Archaeology of Dog Domestication

 Human culture cannot be separated from nature. Harris and Ciopolla, champions of emerging archaeological techniques, explain that human culture is influenced by the nature around it and vice versa. (Harris and Ciopolla 2007) The field of Zooarchaeology studies the relationships between humans and animals throughout time. Humans and dogs in particular, have coexisted and bonded in ways that transcend culture. Dogs as domestic pets can be found at archaeological sites throughout the world and spanning eras. By applying archaeological techniques to the remains of dogs, Zooarchaeologists have worked to determine exactly when and where dogs were first domesticated by humans.

A chart showing the evolution of dogs across regions from a common wolf ancestor

The archaeological record of the domestication of dogs has been unclear for much of the modern era. Originally it was thought that there were two independent domestication events. One occured in Europe and one in Asia. However, new technology, such as the emergence of DNA testing has allowed researchers to debunk this theory. Even though all dogs evolved from the Grey Wolf, the genetic difference between eastern and western dogs is what led many to argue that two different domestication events occurred. By testing the DNA of prehistoric dogs found in Germany and Ireland against that of modern European dogs, archaeologists found that the DNA of the prehistoric dogs was very similar to that of the modern European dogs. This directly contradicted previous findings, stating that they weren’t genetically similar. With this new data, Archaeologists were able to determine that dogs were most likely domesticated through a single domestication event. As stated in Nature Magazine, The researchers estimate that dogs and wolves diverged genetically between 36,900 and 41,500 years ago, and that eastern and western dogs split 17,500–23,900 years ago. Because domestication had to have happened between those events, the team puts it somewhere from 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.” (Lallensack 2017) This new study argues that dogs must have been domesticated before the genetic split to account for them being genetically different from wolves. 

A Diagram showing the difference in facial muscles between wolves and dogs

It is also important to note that since the sample size of prehistoric dogs is so small, it is hard to say for certain when and where dogs were first domesticated. Until more diverse data is found and analyzed, this study, while intriguing, does not provide a conclusive answer to the questions of where and when dogs were first domesticated. Researchers have agreed, however, that the process of domesticating dogs was a passive one that is the result of tamer wolves becoming increasingly dependent on humans to survive. This relates back to Harris and Ciopolla’s argument that human culture is dependent on the nature around it and vice versa. The wild wolves slowly became more dependent on humans to survive which led to domesticated animals becoming an integral part of human culture.




Lallensack, Rachael.

2017  Ancient genomes heat up dog domestication debate. Nature (magazine)  July 18 2017., Accessed November 3, 2019.


Harris, Oliver J.T. and Craig Cipolla.

2017  Multi-species Archaeology: People, Plants, and Animals. In: Archaeological Theory in the New Millennium: Introducing Current Perspectives. Routledge. Pp. 152-170.



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Further Reading:

If you want to know more about earlier theories and studies into dog domestication, this article goes into detail about the previous theory of a dual domestication event using data from a 2016 study:


This article uses actual data from dog domestication studies to fact check the TV Show “Alpha”