Sunday, May 3, 2015

Guinea Pig History: Conrad Gessner and Historiae Animalium

It's time for another guinea pig history lesson! Today, we're going to be talking about an important human in guinea pig history named Conrad Gessner.

Conrad Gessner was a Swiss naturalist who lived from 1516 to 1565. One of his greatest accomplishments was writing his five-volume Historiae Animalium ("Histories of the Animals") in 1551–58 and 1587 (the last one published posthumously). There were over 4,500 pages between all five volumes, and it was considered the beginning of modern zoology. The purpose of this book series was to catalog everything known about animals at that time.

Interestingly, Gessner included animals from many sources, including religion and folklore such as unicorns. This led to the inclusion of many animals that aren't real, but Gessner tried to distinguish between what he thought were real and imaginary animals in his text. It was in Gessner's Historiae Animalium that guinea pigs were first described to the Western world in 1554. (As we previously mentioned, the Moche people of ancient Peru were already familiar with guinea pigs far earlier than this. However, in Europe, the earliest known portrait of a guinea pig is from 1580.)

Here is Gessner's artwork for guinea pigs in his Historiae Animalium:
Caption: "Guinea pig, from Conrad Gesner (Swiss, 1516-1565), Historia animalium (vol. 1, De Quadrupedibus viviparos), 1553, Woodcut. Los Angeles, Research Library, the Getty Research Institute."
Gessner had a pair of guinea pigs that were given to him, but he also cited the descriptions and photographs of others in his book for the sake of completeness.

Even though he lived in an era where the existence of unicorns couldn't be completely discounted yet, it sounds to us like Gessner did his best to put out the most accurate information on animals he could, including guinea pigs.

You might say that Gessner was the guinea pig blogger of his day!

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