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.



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Packing for the Next Life: The Importance of Burial Sites to the Cultural Narrative

There are copious beliefs and practices surrounding the big question: what happens after life? A similarly confounding question arises next—what to bring? Various cultures throughout history have formulated their own answers.

Popular belief would have that the Vikings sent their dead out to sea on a ship before it bursts into flames. However, building such ships was likely a costly affair, and indeed, Lindholm Høje in Denmark (Figure 1) tells a different story. Considered to be Scandinavia’s largest burial sites at 682 graves and 150 stone ships, Lindholm Høje boasts burials from both the Iron Age and the Viking Age (VisitAalborg 2012).

Figure 1. Graves at Lindholm Høje. Notice the many oval graves that resemble the outline of a ship. Photo: Knud Erik Christensen.

The typical grave was shaped like either a triangle or a ship, perhaps to symbolically act as the vessel upon which the deceased may travel to the afterlife. Archaeologists have found numerous possessions, from jewelry and weapons to animals and slaves, buried with their owners–these were probably for the dead to bring with them into the next world. Some were even buried with actual boats, but that was reserved for those of high status, such as the case of the Oseberg ship (Figure 2).

Figure 2. The Oseberg Viking ship excavation. Housed a Viking queen of AD 834. (Morgan 2018) Photo: Museum of Cultural History, UiO/Olaf Væring.

Another reason for the burial of goods might have been to satisfy the dead, so they may not return as draugr–revenants–and cause trouble for the living (Mingren 2018). In addition to the clues about Viking beliefs left within the burial sites, archaeologists have also been able to date many of the graves based on their associated artifacts.

Archaeologists can learn a lot about the life of a culture through the way it treats its dead; sometimes, burial sites become the only worthy sources of investigation.  For example, the horse-riding nomads of the Eurasian Steppes known as Scythians left little trace, with the exception of their grand kurgans–royal mounds of earth often reaching up to 15 meters in height (Parzinger 2017), under which reside catacombs filled with ornate treasures (Figures 3 & 4).

Figure 3. A reconstruction of a kurgan and the underlying catacombs. Photo: Rolle et al. as used by Herman Parzinger.

Figure 4. A golden diadem found inside of a kurgan.The diadem depicts a horned creature, a winged creature, and a creature being ridden by a human. Photo: Central State Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan in Almaty, as used by Kat McAlpine.

The artifacts from the kurgans, paired with the feat of building the kurgans themselves, show the immense wealth of those buried.

Besides the evidence of social class, there is a lot to be learned of the Scythians’ belief system. In a kurgan unearthed in 2013, two golden vases were discovered with black residue–tests later came back positive for opium and cannabis, suggesting drug-fueled rituals (Curry 2016). In another kurgan, the buried were accompanied by 13 sacrificed horses, which were all “decorated to resemble supernatural creatures, and wearing leather masks with wooden horns painstakingly decorated with gold leaf” (McAlpine 2012, par. 6). Often, horses seem to be deified in the artifacts left by Scythians, which suggests that they were in fact regarded as divine.  There is still mystery surrounding the Scythians’ beliefs however, as other supernatural animals, such as snow leopards with wings, can be seen depicted in Scythian artifacts.

Numerous other cultures have their variations of burial rites, and such rites strongly reflect their belief systems. Clearly, how a culture treats its dead is indicative of its ways of life.


Further reading:

More About Lindholm Høje

Two Viking Boat Graves—With a Warrior Inside—Found in Sweden

More About Scythians

Other Burial Customs Today



Curry, Andrew

August 2016  Spectacular new discoveries from the Caucasus set the stage for a

dramatic hilltop ritual. Archaeological Institute of America. Electronic Document.

McAlpine, Katy J.

August 2012  Burial Mounds Preserve Culture of Ancient Nomads in Kazakhstan.

  Smithsonian. Electronic Document.

Mingren, Wu

December 2018  What Really Happened at Viking Funerals? It’s Not What You Think!

  Ancient Origins. Electronic Document.

Morgan, Thad

November 2018 How Did The Vikings Honor Their Dead? History. Electronic Document.

Parzinger, Herman

November 2017  Burial mounds of Scythian elites in the Eurasian steppe: New

discoveries. Journal of the British Academy, 5: 331–355.



2012  Lindholm Høje. VisitAalborg. Electronic Document.



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