The History of the Llama

Llamas in North America

Llamas are native to Central and South America, where they have been bred for thousands of years by the indigenous people.

Today’s llamas belong to the family of “Camelidae.” Camelid evolution began in North America over 82 million years ago. Two ancestry lines evolved in North America west of the Mississippi River (Camelops and Camelus), another was also found in Florida (Lama). The first Camelids migrated to South America approximately 3 million years ago. There, the genera Paleolama, Lama, and Vicugna developed from the long-limbed, flatland-adapted Hemiauchenia. They had shorter limbs which more easily adapted them to the mountainous Andes.

History of the Llama in South America:
The cradle of llama domestication is the Andean “puna”. Over 6300 years of selective breeding for gentleness have made Llamas the safest and easiest-to-train pack animals in the world. The Aymaran Indians who live near Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia call the llama a “speechless brother”, because only a brother would carry the burdens they do without complaint (Ref. Andy Tillman “Speechless Brothers” 1981).

Llamas were formed and molded by evolution over the millenia to thrive at 12,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level. As a result, they are a hardy, durable, low maintenance animal.The llama is related to the domestic alpaca as well as the wild guanaco and vicuna. About 12,000 years ago, the lama genus (guanaco, vicuna, domestic llama and alpaca) appeared throughout South America and was the preeminent herbivore in that part of the world, as it would remain until a century after the conquest of Peru in 1532. Llamas were raised for meat and much later became wool producers, together with their cousin, the alpaca. It is estimated that llamas were used to carry wool textiles to the coast approximately 2500 years ago. The Inca culture (approx. 1200 AD to 1532) who had not yet discovered the wheel, relied upon the llama to carry trade goods, produce and military supplies throughout the empire.The pivotal role that llamas and alpacas played in the Incan culture and economy naturally elevated them to a highly regarded status. Husbandry and management practices were very sophisticated for that period of history.

History of the Llama in North America:
The modern llama is a relative newcomer in North America. Zoos, animal parks, exotic trainers and collectors all imported llamas to the United States in the late 1800’s, including the famous William Randolph Hearst collection at San Simeon. In the 1930’s an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in South America stopped all importation. In 1984, the ban was lifted for llamas from Chile. There were two large importations totaling several hundred llamas and alpacas. The llama “craze” was in full swing. More importation from other South American countries followed as well as selective breeding in their countries of origin and in the United States. Today, llamas are enjoyed by many people in this country and used as show animals, fiber producers, pack animals, hiking companions, therapy animals and pets. There are an estimated 200,000 llamas living in the United States today.