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Sacrificed, farmed and smuggled, the llama has a colourful past, says historian

Posted on 22 August 2017

Research into the historical importance of one of the most celebrated animals in South American culture, has shown that the llama has fought its way back from near extinction to global popularity over a period of five centuries.

The llama, part of the camelid family, is undergoing a revival in the UK, with between 2,000 and 4,000 currently registered to livestock owners around the British countryside.  Today llamas are big business globally and used for guarding farm animals, as tourist attractions, and even as golf caddies.

Tracing the history of the llama back some 50 million years ago, historian, Dr Helen Cowie, has shown that the llama, once a victim of globalisation, has become a popular and admired animal around the world.

Dr Cowie, from the University's Department of History, said: “Llamas are an interesting species because they have had such a varied relationship with human beings over thousands of years.  They have been worshipped and feared, and seen as a figure of fun due to their haughty demeanour. 

“Llamas have also survived being sacrificed to the Gods, slaughtered to the brink of extinction, and exported to other parts of the world.  They are a great example of a species that has fought and won in the battle for survival.”

Following the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 16th century, the llama faced the same fate as the indigenous human population, suffering a population drop of up to 90%. Llamas perished in large numbers due to the popularity of their meat, newly imported diseases, and competition from grazing sheep. 

Conservation of the llama population prior to the conquest had been successful, even though they were sacrificed to the Gods by the Inca civilisation in their hundreds every year. The Incas refrained from killing female llamas, to ensure that stocks remained for breeding and conducted a census of camelids every November to calculate their number, recording the results in quipus - knotted threads employed as a form of account keeping. 

Dr Cowie said: “While the llama is currently on the up, its history had not always been so rosy. Reared intensively by the Incas, llamas suffered severely at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors and still lack the genetic diversity they enjoyed in Pre-Columbian times. 

“The Inca’s relationship with the llama is an intriguing example of some of the earliest methods of animal husbandry. The llama was less fortunate during the sixteenth century and faced annihilation. They became victims of globalisation during the ‘Columbian Exchange.’ 

“Today they are used in animal therapy techniques for elderly people in care homes; have appeared as novelty attractions at weddings; and even as golf caddies. In 2014 the Bolivian government lobbied the UN to make 2016 the International Year of the Camelid, in recognition of the llama’s longstanding contribution to humanity.” 

The ancestors of the llama originated in the Great Plains of North America around 40-50 million years ago and migrated to South America three million years ago, when a land-bridge formed between the two continents. 

Llamas themselves are believed to be descended from guanacos – their wild cousins – and were first domesticated around 4,500BC. As the only livestock to be domesticated by humans anywhere in the New World, South American camelids fulfilled a role in the Andes equivalent to horses, cattle and sheep in Europe, furnishing ancient Peruvian civilisations with transportation, clothing and sustenance.

Dr Cowie’s findings are published in the book, Llama, by Reaktion Books.

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