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How long have llamas been around?

Llamas, they've been around for millenniums

Yes, they've been around for millenniums (or is that “millennia”?)

Y2K was old hat for these animals. Think Y5K. Llamas are probably the oldest domesticated animal on earth that might have been used as pack animals. (Dogs, sheep, goats and pigs all precede the llama as domesticated animals.) The Andean civilizations in South America have used them for four or five thousand years as beasts of burden.

They are members of the camelid family which originated in North America. Fossil llama footprints have been found in California and llama fossils have been found in Florida. The animals that migrated north over the Bering land bridge wandered into Asia and developed into the camels that we recognize today. The ones that migrated south became the lama family: alpacas, guanacos, llamas and vicuñas. The ancestors of the llamas were called “Procamelus” and lived in North America in the Miocene Era approximately twenty million years ago. About two million years ago they began migrating south.

Greek painting
That is the accepted theory, but have a look at this picture on the left which is a painting in the museum in Athens, Greece. Uri Yehuda, who used to have a very interesting web site, with all sorts of mysterious things on it, sent me the picture after he had seen a program about strange fossils found in Greece. The fossils look like llamas with long necks and camel jaws.

He says “It has been suggested that the Greek Gods created these animals about 20,000 years ago. Is it possible?”

I don’t know, Uri, but thanks for bringing it to our attention, maybe some of the visitors to this page will have some knowledge of the fossils and can pass on some more information to us.


Professor Lydia Chiappini who owned Heavens Gate Llama Farm was kind enough to send the following message on this:

“Well Brian, yeah, they do look like llamas and I like the idea of the Greek gods creating llamas but actually those are horses from the Archaic (Geometric) Period of early Greek art.”

Picture from Lebanon
Uri also sent the above picture and says “there seems to be an another ancient llama painting in recent restorations in Marsha (Beit Guvrin site, north of Beer-Sheva, Israel). The paintings are in a burial cave of noblemen from Sidon (in Lebanon) and date from 300 BC.”

South America map

Nowadays llamas are found all over the world but the species are native to the southern side of South America, mostly in Bolivia, Chile and Peru, with a few in Argentina and Ecuador.

Often people will assume that llamas are from Tibet but that is the home of the single “L” lama, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader. The other animals that people seem to confuse with llamas are yaks who also live in Tibet, not South America.

The word “lama” describes the genus of llamas and is used by some organizations in North America to indicate that they encompass both llamas and alpacas.


Peruvian petroglyphs

The petroglyph on the left is from the Majes valley in Peru and shows a llama herder with his llamas, some of whom are in an enclosed pen. Today, in the Andes, llamas are often kept overnight in pens with low stone walls. Petroglyphs are pecked out on a stone face of a cliff.


Pintados geoglyphs The photo of the geoglyph on the right is part of a long series of geoglyphs near Pintados in Northern Chile. These llama figures are fairly large and were made by moving rocks from the surface of the desert exposing the lighter ground beneath. These are very ancient, no one seems to know how old they are.


llama pottery
Llamas were an important part of the Andean cultures and there are thousands of examples of pottery water containers which were made depicting llamas in various poses as shown in the grazing llama vessel in the photo on the left. This piece was made somewhere between 600 and 800 A.D.


As well as being pack animals and a source of fibre, fuel and meat, some llamas were offered as sacrifices to the sun. The drawings done in the 1500s by the Spanish chronicler Guamán Poma de Ayala show many of the everyday interactions by the Incas with their llamas.

Sacrifice drawing Storing corn drawing

The drawing on the left shows the Indians sacrificing a black llama to the spirit of Villcanota, while on the right farmers are storing corn in government graineries.



Wild species of Andean camelids

Guanacos

The guanaco adapts to its surroundings quite easily and is found from sea level to altitudes of 15,000 feet. Their habitat ranges from central Peru to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of the continent. Slightly smaller than the llama, the guanaco’s characteristic colouring is a light gingery brown, with a white neck and belly.

The younger ones live in herds and an adult male will have a group of perhaps six females and he spends most of his time guarding his territory and driving off intruders, both male and female.

For thousands of years guanacos have traditionally been hunted for meat and hides. As they compete with sheep for grazing land the herd sizes were becoming dangerously low as a result of being killed by sheepherders. Chile has now introduced legislation so that the guanacos are protected in certain areas.

Vicuñas
The smallest of the camelids, the vicuña has extremely fine fibre. They are found in southern Peru and northern Chile. The Incas were not allowed to kill vicuñas and captured them in stone corrals so that the animals could be shorn. The fibre was then woven into garments for the Inca royalty.

Over the centuries, hunters nearly exterminated the vicuña but they are now protected again.

Domesticated species of Andean camelids

Llamas

The llama is the largest of the camelids and can graze on any type of land. They do not store water like the camel but can easily withstand thirst. Traditionally the llama has been used as a beast of burden and as a source of wool and meat. The meat is usually eaten by low-income groups and the most popular form is air dried called ch'arki which is where our term “jerky” originated.

Their padded foot does no damage when they are travelling which is one reason why they are becoming quite popular in North America for hiking.

Alpacas
Alpacas are raised strictly for their fibre which is fine and woven into high-class clothing. There are two varieties of alpaca: the wakaya and the suri. The first accounts for about 90% of present-day herds and have medium length fleece. The suri is slimmer and more delicate with long shaggy fibre, which often reaches the ground.

There are photos of the four species on Page One of our llama Q&A pages.


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Brian and Jane Pinkerton
29343 Galahad Crescent, Mount Lehman, British Columbia, Canada V4X 2E4

Phone or Fax: (604) 856-3196E-mail address: brianp@smartt.com

Mount Lehman Llamas Farm Page