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Andean Camelids

Alpacas and the other South American camelids began to be domesticated some 6000 years ago in the Central Andes, a process that culminated with shepherding and the appearance of diverse breeds towards 3500 BC. All, or almost all the pre-Inca Cultures, used camelids for their nourishment and clothing.

The Inca culture developed and maintained systematic camelid breeding programs, including selecting and separating flocks of alpacas according to their colors and characteristics. Archeological evidence suggests that alpacas were worshiped in Inca society, and native legends identified the alpaca as a gift from Pachmana, the Earth Mother - a gift loaned to humans for only as long as they were properly cared for.

There are two species of domesticated Andean camelids, the alpaca and the llama, and two other, non-domesticated ones, the guanaco and the vicuna. (In the old world exists the genus "Camelus" with two species: the C. Dromedarius and the C. Bactrianus - the familiar 1 and 2 hump camels that we see in zoos.) On the basis of updated information, Mario Ruiz suggests a taxonomic classification for Andean camelids, like this:

Kingdom Animalia
Sub-Kingdom Metazoa
Phylum Chordata
Sub-Phyllum Vertebrata
Class Mammalia
Order Artiodactyla
Sub-Order Ruminantia
Infra-Order Tylopoda
Family Camelidae
Tribe Lamini
Genuses Lama
Species Lama guanicoe Muller 1776 (Guanaco)
Lama glama Linnaeus 1758 (Llama)
Vicugna vicugna Molina 1782 (Vicuna)
Vicugna pacos Linnaeus 1758 (Alpaca)

The llama is the most common and also the strongest of the Andean camelids. It has a slender shape, and my be found in up to 50 different colors. The llama has elongated legs, neck and face, and may reach as high as 1.9 meters (6’ 2”) from the ground to its head. Its long ears are erect and curve inward in a classic banana shape. As a pack animal, the llama can carry a weight of about 40 kg (88 lb.) for long journeys, and up to 60 kg (133 lb.) on short ones. The llamas average weight as an adult is 115 kg (254 lb.). As newborns, llamas weigh an average of 11.5 kg (25 lb.). Gestation lasts about 348 days. The female llama reaches sexual maturity at one year of age, but in South America is usually not bred until she is 2 or three years old. Males attain sexual maturity at about three years of age.

There are two breeds of llama traditionally recognized - the Q’ara (bare) and the Ch’aku (wooly). Their fiber (technically it is “fiber” and not “wool”) is less dense than alpacas, and averages about 28 microns in diameter.

Some sources theorize that the Ch’aku llama is the result of cross breeding between llamas and alpacas, either by accident or design. In the United States a third breed of llama has emerged, that being the “suri” llama. Again, some sources believe that this is the result of crossing suri alpacas with llamas.

The alpaca (paqocha in the Quechua language) has a smaller and more curved silhouette than the llama, and has a classic fiber cowlick on its front. Alpacas come in over twenty recognized colors. The alpaca reaches a height of 1.5 meters( 4’11’’) and weighs about 65 kg, (150 lb.). A newborn alpaca, known as a cria, weighs about 7 kg (15 lb.). The alpaca’s gestation period averages 343 days, and like llamas, the female reaches sexual maturity at around one year of age.

Alpacas generally have more fiber than llamas, producing anywhere from 1.7 to 5 kg (3.75 - 11 lb.) per year. Alpaca fiber averages 25 microns in diameter, but the fineness of its fleece is directly related to the age of the alpaca. The finest alpaca fiber comes from the first shearing and is know as “baby alpaca”.

The alpaca presents two recognized breeds. The Huacaya alpaca as a dense, spongy fleece covering almost all its body. The Suri alpaca possesses lanky, silky and long fiber that hangs in curly locks from its sides, and may reach a length of 15 cm (6 inches). Alpacas are traditionally sheared with knives or scissors every two years.

The vicuna is the smallest of the Andean camelids, reaching a height of 1.3 meters (4’ 3”). It possesses a thin and slender body with agile movement. Light brown on the back, the vicuna’s inner legs, belly and chest are whitish in color. Vicuna weigh about 5 kg. (11 lb.)when born, and about 40 Kg. (88 lb.) as adults. Vicuna fiber is the finest among all the animal fibers with an average diameter of 12.5 micron, but it is short, hardly reaching 3 cms. (1¼"). Its annual fleece can reach a maximum weight of 320 grams (11 oz.).

The vicuna, producing such a fine fiber, was coveted and hunted to near extinction. Today the Peruvian government officially protects this species in special National Parks. In reality, damage to this species continues as poachers slowly decimate the remaining wild herds. The world wide population of vicuna does not exceed 170,000, of which some 100,000 are found in Peru in regions that are over 3800 meters (12,500 ft.) altitude.

The guanaco has a similar silhouette to that of a llama, with a light brown-reddish dense and short fur, and with blackish tones on the head and whitish zones around the lips, the ears' edges and inside the legs. At birth it weighs about 10 kg. (22 lb.) and a maximum of 140 kg. (310 lb.) when adult. It has a height of 1.80 mts. (5'11"). It is very common in the Andes of Chile and Argentina. Economically it does not have so much importance and lives in a complete wild state.

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