South America’s Camelids of Yore


Over the years, various evolutionary theories have been put forth. Because the guanaco appeared first in the fossil record, some believe that llamas, alpacas and vicunas all evolved from that species. Scientists believe that between ten and perhaps more than thirty million guanacos once roamed various regions of South America from northern Peru to Patagonia.

Indigenous tribes dating back to 4000 BC began domesticating the species. Llamas were either a mix between a vicuna and guanaco or were bred from guanacos. Scientists have theorized that the alpaca evolved from the llama or was bred as a mix between a vicuna and a llama after it was domesticated. It wasn’t until recently that DNA research enabled scientists to determine with certainty that the alpaca evolved from the vicuna.

All four species played an integral role in indigenous life throughout the Andes in both the practical and spiritual realms as will be apparent to visitors on Peru tours and those who travel to Argentina and other high-elevation destinations on the continent. Until Inca times, vicunas were hunted and killed. In the absence of sophisticated equipment, rounding up animals for slaughter was most easily accomplished by surrounding them and driving them off a cliff. The Incas declared the vicuna sacred, allowing the animals to be sheared but not killed. Aymara and Inca legends held that the indigestible material in camelid stomachs called bezoar was capable of warding off disease, could neutralize poison and bring good luck. Pelts were turned into various items, including shoes, tarps and coats. The meat of the camelids was eaten either cooked or dried and salted. Their dung was used as fuel. Llamas and alpacas were sacrificed during religious ceremonies. Llamas were buried alive with royalty like the rest of their prized possessions for use in the afterworld.

Man’s relationship with the South American camelids changed dramatically when the Spanish arrived on the continent in the 16th century. Colonists fenced range land to raise sheep, pushing the wild vicunas and guanacos out. To make use of vicuna fleece, colonists chose the expeditious route to profit from these wild, soft-haired creatures—slaughter. Populations of the wild camelid species began their precipitous declines. Modern governments have been working over the past half-century to undo the colonial history of the continent’s camelids, restoring and protecting the species, and finding ways to integrate the animals back into the lives of human populations. Thanks to these efforts, visitors who travel to Peru will see vicunas in abundance and many guanacos on Patagonia tours.