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1997—Ritual Rodents    


For this assignment I read "Ritual Rodents: The Guinea Pigs of Chincha, Peru." This article appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of The Journal of Field Archaeology (vol. 24, no. 1) and was authored by David H. Sandweiss of the University of Maine and Elizabeth S. Wing of the Florida State Museum.

In their article Sandweiss and Wing discuss their research involving the ritual use of guinea pigs in pre-Columbian, Andean culture at the site of Lo Demas in present-day Peru. Ethnohistory Sandweiss and Wing state that guinea pigs, known to the natives as "cuy," were an important part of Andean culture: "[Cuy] are important in folk-medical diagnosis, and are regularly sacrificed to the gods. The authors state that as early as 1532, the Spanish noticed the importance of guinea pigs to the indigenous people. Sandweiss and Wing cite at least ten different accounts by sixteenth and seventeenth century Spaniards who witnessed the natives, presumed to have been Incan, use the guinea pigs for sacrificial purposes or for divination, by slicing them open and examining their entrails. These accounts, which began shortly after Spanish arrival, demonstrated that the societies indigenous to the region had established the ritual use of cuy by at least 1532. Furthermore, it hints that cuy sacrifice existed long before Spanish arrival, possibly much longer.

Lo Demas

At Lo Demas (ca. 1480) Sandweiss and Wing found the remains of five guinea pigs. Two of these bore longitudinal slices along their bellies, which meshes neatly with the Spanish accounts of divination by the examination of entrails. Also, all five specimens had variable coat color, which, the authors note, is a byproduct of domestication. The fact that the specimens were from domesticated stock is important, as Sandweiss and Wing point out, because the people of the region felt that for anything to be sacrificed it must in some way bear man’s labor. Sandweiss and Wing observe that since the 1960s archaeologists have found several sites where the presence and location of guinea pig remains suggests a ritual use. Among these are Chavin de Huantar (1,000 to 500 B.C.) and Cahuachi (200 B.C.). Consequently, their discovery of multiple types of evidence for cuy (feces, bones, and desiccated remains) at Lo Demas is not surprising. So the question is "What exactly is important about this find?"


Lo Demas serves as a middle range site and links the antiquity of Chavin de Huantar and Cahuachi with the Andean culture extant at the time of the Spanish arrival. Sandweiss and Wing feel that the cuy from Lo Demas provide evidence of a long-standing continuity in ceremony, one that has its roots possibly as long, or longer, as 2,500 years ago. This is especially important when one considers what Sandweiss and Wing describe as the current climate of thought on the origins of Andean practices:

Recent scholarship has begun to show ever more areas of traditional "Andean" thought and custom that actually originated in or were strongly influenced by European ideas and practices; this is particularly true of religious matters (e.g., Barnes 1992). It is therefore incumbent upon us to demonstrate whether or not particular customs were prehispanic. The Chincha guinea pigs provide the link between the prehispanic and post-hispanic record in the details of ritual rodent sacrifice (Sandleweiss and Wing, 55).

Therefore, sites like Lo Demas, which help to establish the uniqueness of Andean culture, become important, and it would indeed be unfortunate if archaeologists allowed a backslide into ideas of Eurocentrism, which, though mistaken, influenced thought about the peoples of the New World for so long.