Of things concerning llamas in the Central Andes

UEA150 is a silver animal figurine (Figure 1) in the Sainsbury collection, acquired in 1962. It was made by artisans of the Inka empire of South America, and dates to around AD 1500. The figurine represents a simple, but stately effigy of a camelid, probably a llama. Nestled with several other Andean metalworks, the figurine is a favorite of schoolchildren and adults, as well as laypeople and scholars alike. The figurine offers a convenient window to explore the ecology and ancient image of these wonderful animals.

Although the term llama is often used to describe all the South American camelids, strictly speaking, it refers to one species, Lama glama. But there are three other varieties, including the alpaca (Lama pacos), guanaco (Lama guanicöe), and the vicuña (Vicugna vicugna). Although their distribution and patterns of behavior overlap considerably, there are key distinctions.

Alpaca and llama are the two domesticated varieties, while vicuña and guanaco are wild relatives (Figure 2). Guanaco and llama are closest in terms of size, and it's been suggested that llamas were domesticated from the guanaco. The same may be true for alpaca and vicuña.

The process of domestication and the first traces of herding occurred some 5500 years ago (Wheeler 1998; Wing 1986). Problems about specific ancestry abound because all the camelids share similar skeletal morphologies. Hence, it is extremely difficult to distinguish individual species on the basis of bone identification.

The South American camelids are most at home in the high Andes (Figure 3). This is probably because the preferred diet of these animals consists of bunch grasses, which proliferate on the high flatlands of the Andes, over 3500 meters above sea level (Franklin 1982; Gilmore 1950).

Despite their dispositions for high pasturage, the South American camelids are highly adaptable. We know of camelid herding on the desert coast of Peru by the first millennium BC, for example (Shimada and Shimada 1985). Moreover, abundant prehistoric remains have been found as far north as Ecuador (Miller and Gill 1990).

The range of the modern llamas coincides strongly with the Central Andean cordillera (Franklin 1982). The hearth of domestication is believed to have been the Lake Titicaca region, on the border between Peru and Bolivia - because of the expanse of natural habitat (Figure 4) and because of the diversity of camelid varieties still there.

Camelids are multi-purpose animals (Gilmore 1950). They were probably first exploited as dependable sources of protein in regions where abundant meat is scarce. Scholars argue that hunting practices facilitated the colonization and intensive use of the Andean highlands (Rick 1980; Tello 1929).

They also provide natural raw materials in a cold and unforgiving zone. People used their skins for warm clothing in areas that frequently see nightly frosts. Their dung served as fuel in a region that is scarce in natural tree cover. This is helped by the fact that they kindly leave their droppings communally in one spot. Their bones and sinew were also useful for all manner of tools and craft activities.

Another key reason they were exploited and eventually domesticated was because of their fleece (Dransart 2002). Camelid wool, or more properly, hair fiber, is one of the finest and most sought after in the world. Baby alpaca fiber is well-known, but the fleece from its wild cousin, the vicuña, is even finer, softer and rarer - valued last year at over £200 a kilogram! Thousands of these wild animals in the Andean nations are maintained today to satisfy a strong international and luxury demand.

Between the domestic varieties, alpaca are generally preferred over llamas as sources of meat and hair fiber. Llamas, however, provide the added advantage of being transport animals, being the only beasts of burden in the New World before Columbus. Each can carry a modest load of about 30-40 kg. This function was especially important in later prehistory.

Despite being among the most photogenic of all Andean creatures, very few of the major prehistoric artistic traditions emphasized camelids. I can think of three maybe four cultures where they play a prominent role. This is curious given the foregoing litany of functions during Precolumbian times, and their modern appeal. This stands in contrast somewhat to the central role of animals like cattle and ox in certain world cultures, or the pig, chicken, or horse in others. Despite their significance in everyday practice, domestic animals rarely entered into the visual expression of ancient Andean peoples.

One major exception is the art of the Inka empire. Tawantinsuyu was the largest nation to have existed in the New World before the Spanish conquest of 1532. It expanded over much of Andean South America, from southern Colombia to northern Argentina and Chile, leaving distinctive material culture in its wake.

Llama figurines are not uncommon in Inka art as they were frequent dedicatory offerings in shrines and burials. But most are fairly small, usually around 6-7 cm in height. In contrast, these are the super-sized figurines in Inka art, like the example from the Sainsbury collection (Figure 1). They all, curiously, measure 23-25 cm tall, nearly four times normal size, and show exceptional craftsmanship.

They are of hammered and bent silver, and are hollow. Through an economy of elaboration, they emphasize what mattered most to the Inka: the fleece, the saddle-like blanket, or the elegant attenuated forms. What appeals most is the overall simplicity of the figurines, with subdued features such as the knobby knees, the cloven feet, the ears at full attention, and private parts.

For the Inka, gold was construed as the "sweat of the sun", associated with the supreme male solar divinity. As the natural complement, silver, as "tears" or "rain of the moon", alludes to the binding relationships between camelids and women in the Andes and the gendered practice of weaving.

Fine cloths were women's work. Textiles, in general, were highly significant for Inka nobility. Fleece from special llamas, the so-called llamas of the sun, was prepared especially for the finest state textiles. The cloths, as transformations of labour and raw material, were more important than gold or rare stones. Rather than sculptures or jewels, textiles were the ultimate state gifts: they quelled uprisings, rewarded generals, and branded subjects and allies alike with the emblems and fabric of Inka identity (Murra 1962). This was, in various senses, fashioning diplomacy by design.

Llamas were also critical to Tiwanaku, one of the first multi-national states in the Andes and a precursor to Inka culture. Carved wooden trays were used for taking hallucinogenic snuff (Figure); many were found in graves at the desert oasis cemeteries of Northern Chile. Some of them are carved with a single camelid figure, represented in profile, wearing adornments and ropes around the neck (Llagostera Martinez 1995). Tiwanaku peoples also depicted similar designs on other cult objects, including stone monoliths and ceramics. Some have argued that the images articulate a part-natural and part-supernatural world experienced by religious specialists and healers after ingesting hallucinogenic snuff.

Llamas formed a major component of Tiwanaku's economy. Ethnohistoric accounts referred to Aymara kingdoms of the Lake Titicaca region as being the wealthiest because of their huge herds of llamas - one ruler had over 90,000 head. Indeed, one manner by which Tiwanaku expanded politically and culturally beyond its heartland in the Lake Titicaca region was through trading activities facilitated by llama caravans (Browman 1989).

The other major ancient tradition in the Andes to consistently emphasize camelids in visual imagery is Recuay. Like Inka and Tiwanaku, Recuay was a highland-based society which relied on camelid herding for its livelihood.

Notably, some of the earliest evidence for coast-highland camelid caravans comes from Recuay sites. Evidence of corrals and ground drawings of camelids suggests that Recuay peoples led cargo-bearing llamas down the Pacific flanks to the coast for trade. Recent investigations at Chinchawas, on one of these routes, revealed bones from extremely large animals far beyond the size range of modern varieties. These were probably early versions of the massive cargo llamas, described by the Spanish, bred specifically for the Inka armies (see Miller 2003).

Recuay groups are most famous for their ceramic effigy vessels, found commonly as grave goods. Some are made out of distinctive white kaolin clay, the same used in porcelain. Recuay ceramics are extremely thin, well-fired, and make use of a polychrome and resist decoration. Like Inka representation, elaboration is reserved and specific - but here focusing on the human rather than on the camelid (Figure). Compared to the simplicity of the animals, the humans are the ones who animate the composition, festooned with regalia and leading the action.

These objects were most likely commemorative pieces of important ceremonial events centred on the sacrifice of camelids (Lau 2002). As shown by the chronicler Guaman Poma for Inka period practices, the offering of llama sacrifices was a regular and critical practice in Andean religions (Figure). Offering the largest and most valuable of Andean domesticates sought to appease divinities and ancestors for continued well-being.
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By way of conclusion, several niggling questions surfaced upon thinking about this overview. The first concerns the cosmologies represented by ancient Andean imagery, where gods and supernaturals pervaded rampantly, frequently with animal associations and motifs. Anyone familiar with Chavín, Moche or Nasca civilizations will get dizzy talking about supernatural hybrids and animal metaphors. But why are camelids excluded from these configurations? Why weren't there more llama divinities? For that matter, how about the guinea pig?

The second question concerns the function of camelids. One use that has yet to be addressed in the literature is the role of camelids as pets and companions in ancient times. Beyond their economic importance as pack animals and providers of raw materials, were there additional factors in their cultural interaction and social behavior which led them to be exploited, even domesticated? The questions invite additional consideration, if only through speculation through the images.

Figure captions 5. Carved wooden snuff tablets found in the San Pedro de Atacama region (after Dransart 2002). 6. Recuay personage playing a panpipe and leading a camelid (from Disselhoff, Hans. 1967. Daily Life in Ancient Peru. New York: McGraw Hill). 7. Llama sacrifice during month of March (from Guaman Poma de Ayala, Felipe. 1992. Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno, edicion por J. Murra and R. Adorno. Mexico City: Siglo XXI).

G. Lau | May 2003