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Llama and Alpaca

The History of Camelids in South America


Vacationers Trek With Llamas In German Alps

BERSTDORF, GERMANY - DECEMBER 28: Vacationers walk along a mountain range leading a group of llamas in the Bavarian Alps on December 28, 2013 near Oberstdorf, Germany.

Thomas Lohnes/Stringer Getty Images News / Getty Images
Alpaca at the Bowmanville Zoo, Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada

Alpaca at the Bowmanville Zoo, Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada

Dyed Alpaca Wool at Chinchero

Dyed Alpaca Wool at Chinchero


Four camels, or more precisely camelids, are recognized in South America today, two wild and two domesticated. The two wild forms, the larger guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and the daintier vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) diverged from a common ancestor some two million years ago, an event unrelated to domestication. Genetic research indicates that the smaller domesticate, the alpaca (Lama pacos L.), is the domesticated version of the smaller wild form, the vicuña; while the larger domesticate llama (Lama glama L) is the domesticated form of the larger guanaco. Physically, the line between llama and alpaca has been blurred as a result of deliberate hybridization between the two species over the last 35 years or so, but that hasn't stopped researchers from getting to the heart of the question.

All four of the camelids are grazers or browser-grazers, although they have different geographic distributions today and in the past. Historically and in the present, the camelids were all used for meat and fuel, as well as wool for clothing and a source of string for the use in the quipu. The Quechua (the state language of the Inca) word for dried camelid meat is ch'arki, from whence by way of Spanish "charqui" comes our English term jerky.

Llama and Alpaca Domestication

The earliest evidence for domestication of both llama and alpaca comes from archaeological sites located in the Puna region of the Peruvian Andes, at between ~4000-4900 meters (13,000-14,500 feet) above sea level. At Telarmachay Rockshelter, located 170 kilometers (105 miles) northeast of Lima, faunal evidence from the long-occupied site traces an evolution of human subsistence related to the camelids. The first hunters in the region (~9000-7200 years ago), lived on generalized hunting of guanaco, vicuña and huemul deer. Between 7200-6000 years ago, they switched to specialized hunting of guanaco and vicuña. Control of domesticated alpacas and llamas was in effect by 6000-5500 years ago, and a predominant herding economy based on llama and alpaca was established at Telarmachay by 5500 years ago.

Evidence for domestication of llama and alpaca accepted by scholars is changes in dental morphology, the presence of fetal and neonatal camelids in archaeological deposits, and an increasing reliance on camelids indicated by frequency of camelid remains in deposits. Wheeler has estimated that by 3800 years ago, the people at Telarmachay based 73% of their diet on camelids.

Llama (Lama glama, Linnaeus 1758).

The llama is the larger of the domestic camelids, and resembles the guanaco in almost all aspects of behavior and morphology. Llama is the Quechua term for L. glama, which is known as qawra by Aymara speakers. Domesticated from the guanaco in the Peruvian Andes some 6000-7000 years ago, the llama was moved into lower elevations by 3800 years ago, and by 1400 years ago, they were part of herds on the northern coasts of Peru and Ecuador. In particular, the Inca used llamas to move their imperial pack trains into southern Colombia and central Chile.

Llamas range in height from 109-119 centimeters (43-47 inches) at the withers, and in weight from 130-180 kilograms (285-400 pounds), and in the past, llamas were used as beasts of burden, as well as for meat, hides and fuel from their dung. They have upright ears and a leaner body with less woolly legs than the alpacas.

According to Spanish records, the Inca had a hereditary caste of herding specialists, with an emphasis placed on breeding animals with specific colored pelts for sacrificing to different deities. Information on flock size and colors are believed to have been kept using the quipu. Herds were both individually-owned and communal.

Alpaca (Lama pacos Linnaeus 1758)

The alpaca is considerably smaller than the llama, and most resembles the vicuña in aspects of social organization and appearance. Alpacas range from 94-104 cm (37-41 in) in height and about 55-85 kg (120-190 lb) in weight. Archaeological evidence suggests that, like llamas, alpacas were domesticated first in the Puna highlands of central Peru about 6,000-7,000 years ago.

Alpacas were first brought to lower elevations about 3,800 years ago and are in evidence at coastal locales by 900-1000 years ago. Their smaller size rules out their use as beasts of burden, but they have a fine fleece that is prized throughout the world for its delicate, light-weight, cashmere-like wool that comes in a range of colors from white, through fawn, brown, grey and black.

The Role of Alpacas and Llamas

Archaeological evidence suggests that both llamas and alpacas were part of a sacrificial rite in Chiribaya culture sites such as El Yaral, where naturally mummified animals were found buried beneath housefloors. Evidence for their use in Chavín culture sites such as Chavín de Huántar is somewhat equivocal, but seems likely.

Quechua and Aymara speaking herders today subdivide their herds into llama-like (llamawari or waritu) and alpaca-like (pacowari or wayki) animals, depending on physical appearance. Cross breeding of the two has attempted to increase the amount of alpaca fiber, which is of a higher quality; and the fleece weight (a llama trend). The upshot has been to decrease the quality of alpaca fiber from a pre-conquest weight similar to cashmere to a thicker weight which fetches lower prices in international markets.


This glossary entry is a part of the About.com guide to Animal Domestication, and the Dictionary of Archaeology. See page two for a list of sources.

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