History of Llama
The llama is native to the high puna of the South American Andes. Peru and Bolivia form the heart of this region with portions of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador forming the periphery. The llama (lama glama) is one of the four species known as New World camelids which inhabit the region. The other species are the alpaca (lama pacos), the guanaco (lama guanacoe), and the vicuna (lama vicugna). All four species are thought to have originated from a common North American ancestor who is also the supposed predecessor of the African and Asian camels. It is presumed that migration northward across the Bering land bridge into Asia formed the ancestry of the Old World camelids (Bactrian and Dromedary). These camelids became highly adapted to desert climatic conditions.
Ancestors of the guanaco and vicuna are thought to have migrated south into the Andean region of South America. Here they adapted to the harsh climate, sporadic moisture, high elevations, large daily temperature fluctuation, and unpredictable food supply of the region. The native Quechuans’ domestication of these two wild camelid species is thought to have given rise to the llama and alpaca, with the llama originating from the guanaco and the alpaca from the vicuna. The relationship of these four species will make the following information, though specifically focused on llamas, relevant to all.
The native Quechuas’ (primarily the Incas and Amayras) developed a high dependence on these camelids. This dependence is analogous to the dependence of the Plains Indians of North America on bison. Both the bison and camelid species provided the basic needs of the native culture (food, fiber, fuel, shelter) and they served as cultural icons in spiritual and fertility rites. The important difference between the two scenarios is the domestication of the llama and alpaca.
Domestication allowed the llamas’ additional use as a beast of burden as well as selective breeding for specific traits and active management and husbandry. The llama's adaptability and efficiency as a pack animal in the mountain terrain of the Andes made it possible to link the diverse altitude zones and to cover the great linear distances of the region. They hauled food and supplies from the more hospitable lowlands to serve the high altitude mines that fed early commerce. The llama was bred specifically to produce a large, strong animal for the packing function. The alpaca was bred to accentuate its fiber.
The alpaca’s characteristic single coat fleece produced a fine, consistent fiber. The harvest and processing of this commodity served as the base for a significant domestic textile market.
The pivotal role that llamas and alpacas played in the Andean culture and economy naturally elevated them to a highly regarded status. Husbandry and management practices were very sophisticated for that period of history.
The reign of the llama and alpaca in the Andean region ended abruptly in the early 1500s with the Spanish conquest of that region of South America. The Spaniards initiated their colonization with the systematic destruction of the llamas and alpacas and replaced them with their own domestic species, principally sheep. The European stock displaced the native camelids from every part of the region save the highest reaches of the puna where the foreign stock had no chance of survival because of the harsh climate.
Exiled to the upper regions of their natural territory, the llama and alpaca languished as second-rate citizens while the sophisticated husbandry and management systems, were lost amid Spanish prejudice and misunderstanding. The wild vicuna and guanaco were hunted to the point of extinction for their fine pelts and to eliminate competition with domestic stock. The llama and alpaca became exclusive property of the displaced natives and formed the base of a subsistent culture on the high puna.
Discovery of the alpaca's fine wool by the international textile market in the late 1800s led to a higher level of interest in the alpaca, in turn leading to increased management, research, and selective breeding. The llama continued its obscure existence until about 1970. The Andean countries, especially Peru and Bolivia, have, of late, recognized the importance of native camelid species in their cultures and have begun to restore them to their rightful place as the preferred inhabitants of their varied landscape. The alpaca has led in this resurgence because of its desirable fiber. Strong world demand has fostered growth of an economically significant industry and, more importantly, has caused these Andean countries to recognize all the camelid species as unique to their region and as a part of their heritage.
In turn, the animals are once again viewed as a national treasure to be protected and promoted. Preservation of the wild herds of nearly extinct vicunas and guanacos has become a priority, and hunting bans have been imposed and enforced. A resurgence of these species has resulted. Research into management and breeding of the llama has been instituted and carried on in conjunction with current alpaca research. Obviously, modern transportation has reduced the importance of the llama as a beast of burden. Primary emphasis is now being placed on this animal as a food and fiber source. The exportation of camelids has been closely monitored and discouraged as the Andean countries attempt to improve the quality of their stock and build numbers.