Economic Development and Food Heritage: The Case of Guinea Pigs in Chavín de Huántar, Peru

08 August 2017 Written by   Silvana A. Rosenfeld

What happens when economic development clashes with tradition? What are the effects of boosting the commercialization of an animal traditionally exchanged among community members?

As an archaeologist specialized in animal bone remains, I have conducted field and lab work at Chavín de Huántar (Ancash, Peru) for over a decade to understand diet and the nature of human-animal relationships in the past. Chavín de Huántar is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated at the southern entrance of the town of the same name that attracts both national and international visitors, mostly during weekends and national holidays. The site was built beginning around 1200 BCE, and its expansion and occupation continued until roughly 500 BCE. The archaeological site is a ceremonial complex of monumental architecture that includes sunken plazas, intricate gallery and canal systems, and elaborate carved stone art (Rick 2006).

Like in many other prehispanic Andean places, ancient Chavín people consumed fresh meat from llamas as well as from guinea pigs (Rosenfeld and Sayre 2016). Llamas in the Andes have been used for their meat, wool, and bones (for tools) and as caravan animals, while guinea pigs were consumed in celebratory meals and used in ritual offerings and traditional medicine (to diagnose and cure illnesses), among other uses.

One day while walking back from the site, I talked to a local woman about food. She mentioned that she had never raised many guinea pigs (or cuys as they are locally known) until the mining company from San Marcos gave her family a few animals to start a business. This sparked my curiosity as I had always assumed that local cuy meat had been part of the local diet for millennia in the area. I had noticed how rare it was to find llama meat or guinea pig meat in the town restaurants today, although some do prepare picante de cuy—guinea pig prepared with chilies, potatoes, and rice (see figure below)—if requested in advance. Chavinos’ modern diet mostly includes Andean items such as potatoes and ulluco and such nonlocal food items like chicken and rice, but I hadn’t paid much attention to the availability and frequency of llama and cuy consumption by the local families. I had never thought that an external source like a mining company could be playing a role in the acquisition and use of local meat.


Picante de cuy

Therefore, I started a pilot ethnographic project to understand the impacts of the international extractive industry and the changing role of traditional food at Chavín de Huántar. Encouraged by new neoliberal political practices in South America, the mining industry has expanded greatly in the last two decades in Peru. Many mining companies also developed compensational social measures for their extraction practices in the affected communities. In 1996, the Peruvian government privatized and auctioned Antamina Mine, a large polymetallic ore deposit in the district of San Marcos, 41 kilometers from Chavín de Huántar. A consortium of three Canadian companies (hereafter referred to as the Mining Company), financed by diverse global institutions, won the auction and started its operations in 2001. In four years, the Mining Company recovered all its investments and soon started to produce huge profits (Salas Carreño 2010). Due to the involvement of different credit agencies and the World Bank Group, the Mining Company was under pressure to avoid local conflicts and to develop strategies to improve community relations (Kang 2012; Szablowski 2002). The guinea pig giveaway was one of the community development projects at Chavín de Huántar.

I carried out participant observation and interviewed community members of differing ages, genders, and education levels to collect data on perceptions, practices, and narratives with respect to local meat acquisition and consumption in the recent past and in the present at Chavín de Huántar. None of the townspeople I interviewed had eaten llama and they were surprised to hear that our archaeological research showed that the ancient Chavinos from the Monument (how the archaeological site is locally known) had consumed meat mostly from llamas. Regarding guinea pigs, all Chavín informants mentioned that in the past they used to eat them only as a delicacy at special occasions—such as birthdays and weddings—and that these small animals were never bought but were instead given and received as personal gifts. Recently, they said, the Mining Company provided (nonlocal and much bigger) guinea pigs to some families to help improve their subsistence and to grow a local guinea pig market. This intervention had unanticipated side effects.

Culture is dynamic and, like any other practices, meal traditions change over time. However, in this case it is interesting to analyze the role of an external source in revitalizing and commercializing an ancestral social food. What happens when the changes are encouraged by external/powerful forces that benefit some people (the families who received the guinea pigs) but also affect the rest of the community (in ways of how cuys are now acquired)? The guinea pig giveaway by the Mining Company, while part of their sustainable development practices, had mostly economic goals in mind—to start a local market to produce monetary gains for the guinea pig producers and sellers. The people I interviewed mentioned how now guinea pigs are rarely exchanged among Chavinos and became another item that can be purchased at the market only by those who have the cash to acquire them. How will this introduction for economic gains affect social relationships? Some of the people I interviewed had negative attitudes toward the people who had received the guinea pigs from the Mining Company. Many also said that they did not like the taste of these nonlocal larger-size guinea pigs that were introduced. Some worry about the conversion of a social exchange item to a monetary exchange one. Social exchanges serve to create different types of social relations (such as asymmetrical relations and reciprocal obligations). For instance, when someone received a cuy for her/his birthday, this person may feel an obligation to reciprocate the debt. When economically driven sustainability policy is developed, the cultural aspects need to be assessed as well. In the central Andes, cuys are more than just something good to eat. They include many cultural layers and play a role in the social exchanges of the communities. It is important that those who devise development policies pay attention, include the point of views and traditions of the people who will be affected, and recognize the cultural ramifications of the economic interventions in the region. Guinea pigs can now be bought and sold, but can they be shared?



Kang, J. 2012. "Conceptualizing Development in the Peruvian Andes: The Case of the Compañía Minera Antamina." Human Organization 71(3): 268–77.

Rick, J. 2006. "Chavín de Huántar: Evidence for an Evolved Shamanism." In Mesas and Cosmologies in the Central Andes, edited by Douglas Sharon, 101–12. San Diego Museum Papers 44, San Diego.

Rosenfeld, S., and M. Sayre. 2016. "Llamas on the Land: Production and Consumption of Meat at Chavín de Huántar, Peru." Latin American Antiquity 27 (4): 497–511.

Salas Carreño, G. 2010. "La embriaguez del canon minero: La política distrital en San Marcos a doce años de la presencia de Antamina." Anthropologica 28 (Supp. 1): 111–38.

Szablowski, D. 2002. "Mining, Displacement, and the World Bank: A Case Analysis of Compania Minera Antamina’s Operations in Peru." Journal of Business Ethics 39 (3): 247–73.

Silvana A. Rosenfeld is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of South Dakota. She is interested in the role of animal-human interaction in domestication, food, and ritual in the Andean region of South America. She is coeditor of Rituals of the Past: Prehispanic and Colonial Case Studies in Andean Archaeology.

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