Though domesticated longer than practically any other animal in the world, the llama has languished in relative obscurity until recently. The last thirty years have seen the rediscovery of this most unique animal in its native South America and its initial discovery in North America.
History of the Llama — South America
The llama is native to the high puna of the South American Andes. Peru and Bolivia form the heart of this region with portions of Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador forming the periphery. The llama is one of the four species known as New World camelids which inhabit the region. The other species are the alpaca, the guanaco, and the vicuna. All four species are thought to have originated from a common North American ancestor who is also the supposed predecessor of the African and Asian camels. It is presumed that migration northward across the Bering land bridge into Asia formed the ancestry of the Old World camelids (Bactrian and Dromedary). These camelids became highly adapted to desert climatic conditions.
Southerly migration into the South American Andes formed the ancestry of the guanaco and vicuna, which adapted to the harsh climate, sporadic moisture, high elevations, large daily temperature fluctuation, and unpredictable food supply of the region. Domestication of these two species is thought to have given rise to the llama and alpaca, with the llama originating from the guanaco and the alpaca from the vicuna. The relationship among these four species will make the following information, though specifically about llamas, of some value to all.
The domestication of the llama and alpaca marked the beginning of a high dependence on these animals by the Inca culture of the Andes. This dependence was somewhat analogous to the dependence the Plains Indians of North America had on the bison. The bison provided the base needs of the native cultures (food, fiber, fuel, shelter) and they served as cultural icons in spiritual and fertility rites. The important difference between the two situations is the domestication of the llama and alpaca. Domestication allowed the llamas’ additional use as a beast of burden as well as selective breeding for specific traits. The llama's adaptability and efficiency as a pack animal in the mountain terrain of the Andes made it possible to link the diverse altitude zones and to cover the great linear distances of the region. The llama was bred specifically to produce a large, strong animal for the packing function. The alpaca was bred to accentuate its naturally finer wool. The harvest of this fine wool served as the base for a significant domestic textile market.
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.
The reign of the llama and alpaca in the Andean region ended abruptly in the early 1500s with the Spanish conquest of that region of South America. The Spaniards initiated their colonization with the systematic destruction of the llamas and alpacas and replaced them with their own domestic species, principally sheep. The European stock displaced the native camelids from every part of the region save the highest reaches of the puna where the foreign stock had no chance of survival because of the harsh climate.
Exiled to the upper regions of their natural territory, the llama and alpaca languished as second-rate citizens while the sophisticated husbandry and management systems, were lost amid Spanish prejudice and misunderstanding. The wild vicuna and guanaco were hunted to the point of extinction for their fine pelts and to eliminate competition with domestic stock. The llama and alpaca became animals of the poor and formed the base of a subsistence culture for the natives of the high puna.
Rediscovery of the alpaca's fine wool by the international textile market in the late 1800s led to a higher level of interest in the alpaca, in turn leading to increased management, research, and selective breeding. The llama continued its obscure existence until about 30 years ago. The Andean countries, especially Peru and Bolivia, have, of late, recognized the importance of native camelid species in their cultures and have begun to restore them to their rightful place as the preferred inhabitants of their varied landscape. The alpaca has led in this resurgence because of its desirable fiber. Strong world demand has fostered growth of an economically significant industry and, more importantly, has caused these Andean countries to recognize all the camelid species as unique to their region and as a part of their heritage.
In turn, the animals are once again viewed as a national treasure to be protected and promoted. Preservation of the wild herds of nearly extinct vicunas and guanacos has become a priority, and hunting bans have been imposed and enforced. Research into management and breeding of the llama has been instituted and carried on in conjunction with current alpaca research. Obviously, modern transportation has reduced the importance of the llama as a beast of burden. Primary emphasis is now being placed on this animal as a food source with fiber production as a secondary function. The exportation of camelids has been closely monitored and discouraged as the Andean countries attempt to improve the quality of their stock and build numbers.
History of the Llama — North America
The llama is a relative newcomer in North America. After the presumed migration of the original camelid seed to Asia and South America, there were no camelids in North America until the importation of llamas as zoo exhibits into the United States in the late 1800s. The number of imports were small and generally included guanacos or guanaco hybrids. Alpaca and vicuna importations were negligible, and any traces of these species in the United States at that time probably arrived via hybrids. One of the more significant importations was made in the early 1900s by William Randolph Hearst to populate his San Simeon estate with these animals as well as a number of other exotic species. Reported to have numbered twelve animals, Hearst's importation is thought to have been the largest to that date. In 1930, importation was cut off by a "Foot and Mouth Disease" (FMD) embargo on all South American hoofed stock. Thereafter, the only stock legally entering the United States came from Canada where the llama population was equally limited. Some unauthorized entries reportedly took place after 1930 but again were small.
These early imports formed the base of the United States llama herd, which, until the early 1970s, resided in private exotic collections and zoos. Its status as an exotic exhibit species did not foster a need for aggressive management or breeding practices. Inbreeding, hybridization, and subsistence management were common. However, a few private breeders and zoos recognized the unique qualities of the llama and began applying reasonable management and breeding practices in an effort to produce a more desirable animal.
These herds increased the visibility and improved the presentation of the llamas. This lead to other people becoming interested in raising them as alternative livestock for pet/companion animals and pack animals. Market momentum began to build and by the late seventies, demand outstripped supply and the price began to rise and two year waiting lists were commonplace with most breeders. With this added incentive, there was a move to take off import restrictions and after decades of closure, the restrictions were lifted and South American llamas again entered the U.S. Cost of quarantines and transportation limited those numbers to several thousand. Those animals enfolded with the base population, represent the present U.S. llama herd, now numbering in excess of 100,000 animals.