Llamas and Alpacas

Daniel W Gade. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

The llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Lama pacos) are among the few domesticated ungulates whose most important function has not been that of providing food for the people who control them. The llama has been kept primarily as a beast of burden, whereas the more petite alpaca is most valued as a source of an extraordinarily fine fleece. These South American members of the camel family may share a common biological ancestry from the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), for although they have long been designated as separate species, the closeness of the relationship is reflected in fertile offspring when they crossbreed.An alternative point of view now gaining in popularity is that the alpaca descended from the vicuña (Lama vicugna), since both animals are about the same size (44 to 65 kilograms [kg]) and both have the capacity to regenerate their incisor teeth. The distribution of both the llama and the alpaca has been traditionally centered in the Andean Highlands of Peru and Bolivia, with peripheral populations of the former in Chile, Argentina, and Ecuador. In the past three decades growing interest has increased their population on other continents, especially in North America.

Camelid Meat as Human Food

Both animals have been an important source of food in the part of the central Andes where husbandry has been most intensive. In neither case, however, are they raised primarily for their flesh, which is consumed after their most valued functions diminish with age. However, llamas possibly had a more important meat function in the pre-Pizarro Andes before the introduction of European barnyard creatures. The movement of herds from the highlands to the coast could have been a way both to transport goods and to move protein-on-the-hoof to the more densely populated coast, where at the time, meat was much rarer than in the highlands (Cobo 1956). David Browman (1989) suggested that when camelid utilization in the highlands expanded northward, starting around 1000 B.C., and long before the Inca civilization was established, meat production appeared to have been the most important use of these animals. But whether of primary or secondary importance, the protein and fat supplied by this meat have contributed to the health of the animals’ Andean keepers, whose diet consists mainly of starch.

Some fresh meat is consumed soon after an animal has been butchered. Recently butchered muscle meat is normally whitish or pinkish. Travelers’ reactions to llama flesh have been mixed, although it is not always clear that the opinion is based on actual consumption. J. J. Von Tschudi (1848), for example, described it as “spongy in texture and not agreeable in flavor.” It is reportedly as high in protein (more than 20 percent) as other kinds of meat but lower in fat than mutton, pork, or beef (Bustinza Choque 1984). Sausages and a kind of Andean haggis are made from the blood and intestines (Flannery, Marcus, and Reynolds 1989).The soft parts of the animals may also be fried (chicharrones).

Most llama and alpaca meat is dried, which in this region of the world has been the only feasible way to preserve and market it outside the local community. Chunks of the carcass are separated from the bone and cut into thin slices less than 1 centimeter thick. These are usually salted by soaking in a brine solution for several days. Then the meat is exposed for two or three weeks in May and June when night temperatures fall to minus 15° Celsius (C).The alternation of freezing cold at night and intense sunlight in the day dries the meat. Called charqui in Spanish (from ch’arki in Quechua), the dried meat keeps indefinitely. The term charqui has given rise to the English word “jerky,” which means strips of dried meat, usually beef. In addition to its transportability, charqui is reportedly free of a sarcoporidian parasite that is commonly found in fresh meat (Calle Escobar 1984:167).

The main consumers of charqui are Indians, who barter for it if they do not produce it themselves. Char-qui continues to be carried in llama trains to lower ecological zones where it is exchanged for maize, fruit, and coca. It is also seen in the periodic markets on the Altiplano of southern Peru and Bolivia and is a staple food in several mining towns. Its main competitor is dried mutton. After sheep were introduced to the Andes in the sixteenth century and Indians subsequently adopted them as their own, the process for making charqui was applied to mutton to make chalona. Whether fresh or dried, the meat of llamas or alpacas is stigmatized as Indian food, and many mestizos avoid it simply for that reason. Because these animals are not inspected in certified slaughterhouses, questions have arisen about the wholesomeness of the meat.

Llamas and alpacas are led to slaughter typically when their primary functions are deteriorating. However, some other criteria are considered depending on the place or situation. George Miller (1977) pointed out that the most disobedient llamas of the herd are sometimes the ones chosen to be slaughtered. If carried out as a general practice, this kind of culling acts as a selection mechanism for docility. Llamas may also be culled for slaughter if they are unusually small or weak, qualities that inhibit their function as pack animals. Moreover, alpacas may be culled for slaughter if their fleece is multicolored; the international wool trade much prefers white or light fawn-colored fleece and pays higher prices for it. Hybrids (wari or huarizo) between an alpaca and llama have neither of the advantages of the parents and may be preferentially kept as a meat source.

Butchering may also be the result of a need or desire for ritual products from the animal. Bezoar stones, for example, which sometimes occur in the stomach and intestines of llamas and alpacas, were used in native ritual. They were also valued by the Spaniards, who believed them to be an antidote for poison. Fat (pichuwira), especially of llamas, has uses in rites that combine a number of items, including coca leaves, cigarettes, and wine or spirits. Fetuses of pregnant llamas and alpacas are also prized as a ritual item, especially as a substitute for sacrificing live animals in towns and cities. In La Paz, Bolivia, the native herb market sells dried fetuses; typically they are buried under the doorway of a private home to ensure fertility. Formerly, the hides of llamas were used for making sandals, but since the 1950s, Indian footwear in the Central Andes is made with rubber from worn-out truck tires.

No reliable production figures for camelid meat are available; however, the yearly slaughter in Peru and Bolivia may reach 10 percent of the combined llama and alpaca population of more than 6 million animals, which is more or less divided equally between the two (Sumar 1988: 26).Almost 89 percent of alpacas in the world are in Peru; Bolivia has 57 percent of the world’s llamas (Bustinza Choque 1984). On a household basis, a poor family may butcher 4 animals a year, whereas a more affluent herder may process up to 12 head a year (Flores Ochoa 1968). Aside from slaughter, llamas may be eaten after they have died of other causes (a newborn killed by diarrhea, for example) (Novoa and Wheeler 1984: 124).

The zone of intensive husbandry today is confined to elevated areas above 3,900 meters (m), all within a 300-kilometer (km) radius of Lake Titicaca. Not surprisingly, Puno produces much more camelid meat than does any other Peruvian department. The paramos (flatlands) of northern Peru, Ecuador, and southern Colombia have rarely contained llamas or alpacas in any sizable numbers, and in much of Colombia and Venezuela there are none at all. In the llama heartland, the colonial period’s native beast of burden was displaced to some degree when the llamas’ trochas (trails) were widened and mule driving was introduced. When vehicle roads were built in the twentieth century, the displacement was accelerated and the llama population dropped sharply. But that same decline in numbers has not happened with alpacas, which in fact are seen by non-Indians as much more valuable animals.

The Nonmilking Enigma

The nutriments that llamas and alpacas provide do not include milk, and the failure of humans to milk these domesticated herd animals raises some important questions. Unfortunately, written sources have rather frequently contained misinformation, sometimes based on an Old World conceit about the cultural history of the Americas. Examples include assertions that llamas were used as mounts and to pull plows, and that alpacas have been beasts of burden. Encyclopedias, several geography textbooks, articles in Nature and National Geographic, and even a dictionary of zoology contain this error (Gade 1969).

Similarly, milk has been claimed as one of the useful products of the llama and alpaca, yet scholars who have studied Andean camelid domestication, ecology, and economy are silent on the subject.1 Analyses of the archaeological context by C. Novoa and Jane Wheeler (1984) as well as Elizabeth Wing (1975) and David Browman (1974) contain no hints that Andean people kept any of the camelids for their milk. The Spanish chroniclers who wrote of the Inca say nothing about the native people using milk in any form from either species. Quechua, the language of the Inca and their descendants, differentiates human milk (ñujñu) and animal milk (wilali), but that lexical specificity by itself says nothing about any possible human use pattern of the latter.

If domestication is viewed as a process rather than a sudden occurrence, one might suppose that llamas and alpacas were developed for their milk. If we accept the reports of archaeologists who specialize in camelid bones, then it appears that domestication of the llama and alpaca had occurred by 4000 B.C. (Browman 1989).Thus, one or both of these camelids have been manipulated by humans for some 6,000 years, which (if time were of the essence in domestication) should have turned the animals into abundant milk producers.

If, however, a high level of civilization is critical in explaining the milking phenomenon, then one might expect that the civilization of the Inca (A.D. 1100-1532) would have developed this area of subsistence activity. The Inca knew enough about heredity to breed white llamas for state sacrifice and to have produced a plethora of food surpluses that testified to their skills as sedentary agriculturists and herders. The Inca and the various cultures that preceded them by a millennium were all sufficiently talented to have understood the enormous nutritional benefits of milk from their two camelids.

Milking would also have enabled a more intensive use of the grassy puna (highlands) and paramo above the altitudes permitting agriculture. As with cattle in the Old World, the milking (and bloodletting) of llamas might have heightened the value of pastoralism and thus encouraged a nomadic way of life. Indeed, the availability of milk would have given the Indians a sort of nutritional freedom to roam the high country above 4,000 m (3,500 m in Ecuador) at will, in search of good pasture for large herds. Certainly such activity would have been more facultative than the obligate relationship with agriculturalists that evolved in the Andes.

Llamas and alpacas have some habits in common that would theoretically predispose them to being milked by their human keepers. Both have a natural tendency to group in corrals at night. Their parturition occurs during the rainy period from January to March when abundant grass is available and the creamy surpluses of lactating females could have been removed with little deprivation for their nursing young. Finally, their general docility resembles that of sheep much more than cattle.

Why the Milking Void?

The aboriginal absence of milking in the Andes elucidates certain cultural-historical questions about domestication as a process. Least persuasive is the argument that the quantities of milk were too small to make milking a worthwhile effort. The old saying “there is no excess” (e.g., insufficient liquid left over for humans once the young have suckled) could have been originally said of cattle, sheep, goats, or water buffalo. Early in her domestication some 7,000 years ago, a cow must have yielded only small amounts of milk to the person willing to extract it. The large milk volume associated with purebred dairy cows today does not predate the nineteenth century.

Indeed, in the face of a minuscule output, the key question is why peoples in the Old World started to milk in the first place. A German cultural geographer, Eduard Hahn (1896), had perhaps the most compelling insight about the prehistoric origins of milking. He believed that milking originally had a religious, not an economic, motive. Bowls of milk were offered to the lunar mother goddess, a cult that regulated spiritual life in ancient Mesopotamia where cattle were first domesticated. The frothy white substance that sustains early life had considerable symbolic power and thus ritualistic value. The quantity of milk extracted was incidental because it had not yet spread from a ritual use among the priestly castes to become nourishment for common people. Nonetheless, expansion of milk supplies to meet the cultic requirements gave an impetus to select those cows found to have large udder capacity and tractability to human interlopers. Slowly, over many generations of selective breeding, milk quantities increased; one result of this was that the original religious motivation for milking was forgotten, and milk became a common nutriment. In other words, the nutritional benefits of milk became recognized as a sufficient reason to carry on the custom.

Such a process was probably “invented” in one place—the Fertile Crescent of southwestern Asia some 6,000 years ago—and then diffused elsewhere.As this diffusion occurred, milking spread to other domesticated mammals. For example, camels, which replaced cattle in desert environments, were first milked by using the model of bovine milking that had begun two millennia earlier. In fact, Carl Sauer (1952) reasoned that because all the Old World herd animals have been milked, milking may well have been the general motive for domesticating them in the first place.

Quantity of milk aside, another reason put forward for not milking llamas and alpacas has to do with behavioral peculiarities of the species. This line of reasoning posits that a lactating female would not allow people to manipulate the vulnerable underpart of her body, as a defense mechanism to ensure sustenance to the offspring. A related assertion is that llamas and alpacas simply cannot be milked because certain pituitary hormones inhibit the lactating female of these species from releasing her colostrum or milk to any but her own offspring. Although these two characteristics may exist, they nevertheless do not explain the phenomenon of nonmilking, again because of the vast behavioral changes that all dairy mammals have undergone to eliminate their natural refusal strategies. At some point in their domestication, individual animals that did not respond to human intervention were likely to have been culled from the breeding pool. Subsequent generations of the selected species gradually evolved in directions more conducive to human manipulation.

The physiological intolerance of Andean people to milk (lactose intolerance) is still another explanation proposed for the historic nonmilking of llamas and alpacas. As in much of Asia and Africa, most of the native folk of the Americas cannot properly digest fresh milk after they have been weaned due to insufficient amounts of the lactase enzyme in the intestine to break down milk sugars (lactose) (Simoons 1973). When pressed to drink milk, Amerindians often suffer nausea and diarrhea. In Peru, for example, nutritional studies have reported that highland children experience an adverse reaction to milk (Calderón-Viacava, Cazorla-Talleri, and León-Barua 1971; Figueroa et al. 1971).

Yet, as with the arguments already examined, lactose intolerance is still not a convincing explanation for the absence of milking in the Andes. After the Spaniards brought cows, goats, and sheep to them, the Andean peoples followed the European example and began to milk these animals. They used the milk for infant feeding and cheese making. Nursing Indian babies can be fed fresh animal milk with impunity because they still have a high level of the lactase enzyme, whereas cheese is a low-lactose dairy product that many lactose malabsorbers can consume without ill effects. Cheese has another advantage over liquid milk: It is preservable without refrigeration and thus can be transported long distances. Cows’ milk predominates in making cheese, but in dry areas goats’ milk is also used. Cheese making from ewes’ milk has been an activity in the Altiplano of Bolivia south of Oruro since the colonial period.

In summary, then, the failure to have milked llamas or alpacas was probably not due to their low milk production, nor to the innate behavior of this camelid genus, nor can it be attributed to the lactose intolerance of the people who have kept them. This leaves a disarmingly simple reason for not milking llamas and alpacas. It never occurred to the indigenes to do so. For those who appreciate milk, yoghurt, ice cream, butter, and cheese in their diet, this failure to grasp the possibility of milking may seem illogical. Yet the pre-Columbian civilizations of the New World did not employ several other basic traits of material and nonmaterial culture either, including the concept of the wheel, the arch, and any form of real writing. To this lack of invention must be added the failure of diffusion. Isolated by oceans, the Andean people, prior to conquest, had no opportunity to learn about the idea of milking from European, African, or Asian peoples.

Moreover, the use of llama or alpaca milk for ritual purposes never emerged in the Andes as it did in the Fertile Crescent, although Inca state religion manifested many associations with flocks in its spiritual rhetoric and sacrificial practices (Brotherston 1989). The elaborate rituals concerned with fertility, curing, and divination that persist today in the high Andes do not involve milk in any way. It was camelid fat—easier to transport and less perishable than milk—that acquired the symbolic role in human needs to communicate with the supernatural forces.

As noted,Andean peoples first learned about milking cows and ewes from the Spaniards. It is puzzling, however, that after the introduction of milking, the practice was not subsequently extended to llamas and alpacas, particularly in zones above 4,200 m where they had no competition and where a kind of transhumance has prevailed. It is the case that the transfer of the idea of milking from one mammalian species to another has occurred within historic times. In northern Scandinavia, for example, after observing Swedish settlers milk their cows, the Lapps started to milk the domesticated mammal under their control, the reindeer. But although milking a lactating llama or alpaca might well have been tried on occasion over the past half millennium, it was not a practice that emerged as a use pattern or one that disseminated elsewhere. If milking these animals had been anything more than episodic, it would have been recorded in some travelers’ accounts and eventually in the ethnographic record.

Llamas and Alpacas as Future Dairy Animals

The milk of the Andean camelids has received little research attention. One study in Peru, which derived 256 milk samples from 71 different lactating alpacas, found that yields in a 12-hour period varied widely from only 15 to 20 cubic centimeters (cc) of milk in some to as much as 500 cc in others, with 300 cc as a rough average (Moro 1954). Butterfat content was found to be between 3 and 4 percent and the pH ranged from 6.4 to 6.8. Porcelain white in color and with no distinctive odor, the alpaca milk examined in this study was somewhat sweeter and more viscous than cows’ milk. These organoleptic characteristics contrast with the unusual flavor and salty taste reported for the milk of an Old World camelid, the dromedary, whose milk is nevertheless much appreciated in parts of the Middle East. More detailed biochemical data on camelid milk puts lipid content at 4.716 plus or minus 1.307 percent (Fernandez and Oliver 1988: 301). Development of either the llama or alpaca as a dairy animal would first entail the considerable work of selecting and breeding animals for higher milk yields.

Wider commercialization of the llama or alpaca as a source of food deserves consideration. They have potential as meat animals because their growth is fast: 9 kg at birth, they can weigh 29 kg at 9 months and 54 kg at 3 years (Bustinza Choque 1984). Carcass yield is reportedly higher than that of sheep or cattle. Although they can thrive on forage that extends well beyond the native Andean puna grasses, any serious herd investment would require better data on feeding requirements. Moreover, the prejudice against both meat and milk from these animals would need to be addressed in order to find profitable ways to market them to the public. North America, which had an estimated 23,000 llamas and alpacas in 1990, is now the center for stock improvement and creative thinking on the considerable potential of these animals. However, both Peru and Bolivia, where the diversity of the llama and alpaca gene pool is greatest, have banned the export of live animals beyond their borders.