Llamas and Alpacas

The Domestication History of Camelids in South America

Llamas at Quebrada de Humahuaca, Jujuy, Argentina
Llamas at Quebrada de Humahuaca, Jujuy, Argentina. Luis Davilla / Getty Images

The largest domesticated animals in South America are the camelids, quadruped animals which played a central role in the economic, social, and ritual lives of past Andean hunter-gatherers, herders, and farmers. Like domesticated quadrupeds in Europe and Asia, South American camelids were first hunted as prey before being domesticated. Unlike most of those domesticated quadrupeds, however, those wild ancestors are still living today.

Four Camelids

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 alpaca (Lama pacos L.), is the domesticated version of the smaller wild form, the vicuña; while the larger 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 matter.

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 making quipu and baskets. The Quechua (the state language of the Inca) word for dried camelid meat is ch'arki, Spanish "charqui," and the etymological progenitor of the 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 include changes in dental morphology, the presence of fetal and neonatal camelids in archaeological deposits, and an increasing reliance on camelids indicated by the 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 3,800 years ago, and by 1,400 years ago, they were kept in 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). In the past, llamas were used as beasts of burden, as well as for meat, hides, and fuel from their dung. Llamas have upright ears, a leaner body, and less wooly legs than the alpacas.

According to Spanish records, the Inca had a hereditary caste of herding specialists, who bred 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 it 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, gray, and black.

Ceremonial Role in South American Cultures

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 house floors. Evidence for their use in Chavín culture sites such as Chavín de Huántar is somewhat equivocal but seems likely. Archaeologist Nicolas Goepfert found that, among the Mochica at least, only domestic animals were part of sacrificial ceremonies. Kelly Knudson and colleagues studied camelid bones from Inca feasts at Tiwanaku in Bolivia and identified evidence that camelids consumed in the feasts were just as often from outside the Lake Titicaca region as local.

Evidence that llama and alpaca were what made the extensive trade along the huge Inca road network possible has been known from historical references. Archaeologist Emma Pomeroy investigated the robusticity of human limb bones dated between 500–1450 CE from the site of San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and used that to identify traders involved in those camelid caravans, particularly after the collapse of Tiwanaku.

Modern Alpaca and Llama Herds

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. Crossbreeding of the two has been attempted to increase the amount of alpaca fiber (higher quality), and fleece weight (a llama characteristics). 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.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Llamas and Alpacas." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/llama-and-alpaca-domestication-history-170646. Hirst, K. Kris. (2023, April 5). Llamas and Alpacas. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/llama-and-alpaca-domestication-history-170646 Hirst, K. Kris. "Llamas and Alpacas." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/llama-and-alpaca-domestication-history-170646 (accessed June 3, 2023).