The guinea pig was introduced to Europe during the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors. A Belgian archaeozoologist has found new evidence which suggests that the guinea pig was kept as pets by the wealthier middle class.
The skeletal remains of a guinea pig, found in the fill of a 16th century cellar in Mons (Hainaut), shed new light on the role of this animal during the European Renaissance period. The bones were discovered during an archeological investigation carried out by the archaeological heritage division of the ‘Service Public de Wallonie’.
Based on the skeletal remains, Fabienne Pigière, archaeozoologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, found new evidence on the introduction and the role of guinea pigs in Europe at that period. The results of the study were included in the Journal of Archeological Science.
It is the first European archaeozoological find dated with certainty, based on both the archaeological context and radiocarbon dating of its bone. The remains date from a period between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, indicating that the guinea pig was imported shortly after the conquest of South America by Spanish conquistadors.
Guinea pigs occur in the wild in various parts of South America, but were domesticated by the Amerindians as early as 5000 BC, and used as an important source of food. The guinea pig also served as sacrificial animals in religious ceremonies. The Spaniards did not bring the wild variant to Europe, but the multiple domestic form as we know them now from our pet store. This is supported by images from that period, such as the paintings ‘The entry of the Animals into Noah’s Ark’ and ‘The Garden of Eden’, both by Jan Brueghel the Elder.
The studied skeletal remains were found intact, with no trace of processing by knives or other utensils, which shows that the guinea pig in this case was not on the menu, but was kept as ‘exotic’ pet. Furthermore, the study argues that the guinea pig was accessible to several classes of the population, while earlier studies suggested it was a prestigious animal. Until now, scientists knew little about the role of the guinea pig in our region.
The article, ‘New archaeozoological evidence for the introduction of the guinea pig to Europe,’ appears in the April 2012 issue of Journal of Archaeological Science (Volume 39, Issue 4).