Guinea Pig Origins
Europe or North America are not the original birth homes of these small, cute creatures.
The Inca tribes in Peru were the first to domesticate these animals early in 5000 BC. Statues of guinea pigs have been found in archaeological digs in Peru and Ecuador dating from ca. 500 BC. The tribes used the guinea pigs for their fur as well as a source of meat and took great pride in trading with the European traders such as the Dutch.
Researching their origins, it is amazing to see how far they have come from the 14th century until today, where they are found not only in Europe and in North America, but in all corners of the world.
Guinea pigs are small rodents that don't have a tail. They were originally greatly appreciated for their meat and fur. The hiding places of these animals were the hills and mountains of the South American Andes. The Inca tribes hunted and used them for the above-mentioned reasons.
They have come a long way from their origin in the Andes. In today's society, they are no longer used for their fur or meat and are typically found in a cage or dwelling inside a loving family's home.
Therefore, how they came to be called 'pigs' is not clear. They are built somewhat like a pig, with a large head relative to the body, a stout neck, and a rounded rump with no tail. Some of the sounds they emit are very similar to those made by pigs, and they spend a large amount of time eating. They were transported to Europe by ships. This was possible because guinea pigs did well in small spaces, therefore they survived the long trips.
Origins of the Name
Numerous languages have the same name for these animals, namely calling them pigs. The German word for them is Meerschweinchen, literally meaning 'little sea pigs' (sailing ships stopping to re-provision in the New World would pick up stores of guinea pigs, which provided an easily transportable source of fresh meat; Meerschwein = porpoise, another food source for sailors). The Welsh term is mochyn cwta, meaning 'little pig'. The French called them Cochon d'Inde meaning Indian pig, and the Dutch used the term guinees biggetje, or Guinean piglet.
However, it is backed up by its scientific name as well, which is Cavia porcellus, porcellus being the Latin word for 'little pig'. Cavia is derived from Portuguese çavia (now savia), which is derived from the Tupi word saujá, meaning 'rat'.
The origin of 'guinea' in 'guinea pig' is a little bit harder to explain. One of the hypotheses is that because the guinea pigs were brought into Europe trough Guinea, it is there from where they were labeled as such. 'Guinea' was also frequently used in English to refer generally to any far-off, unknown country, and so the name may simply be a reference to the animal's foreignness.
Another theory suggests that 'guinea' is a corruption of 'Guiana', an area in South America, though the animals are not native to that region. A common misconception is that they were so named because they were sold as the closest thing to a pig one could get for a guinea; this theory doesn't have a solid base because the guinea was first struck in England in 1663, and William Harvey is known to have used the term 'Ginny-pig' as early as 1653. Others believe it may be an alteration of the word Coney; guinea pigs were referred to as 'pig coneys' in Edward Topsell's 1607 treatise on quadrupeds.
Regardless of where they come from, guinea pigs have become a beloved pet nowadays. If you talk to guinea pig owners, you'll see their satisfaction with this pet around. A rather busy schedule of today's society can handle adding one more activity like keeping a guinea pig around. It is an easy-keeper.