Llamas are members of the camelid family which originated in North America about 40 million years ago, but from there they moved down to South America only 3 million years ago. The people of Peru and Bolivia began domesticating llamas 4,000-5,000 years ago, making them some of the earliest domesticated animals on the planet. During most of the Pre-Colombian cultures of Peru, llamas were often sacrificed to gods or along with the passing of nobility. The Inca used them as pack animals and as a source of fiber for clothing. They became extinct in North America about 10,000 years ago but were brought back to the United States this century by William Randolph Hearst, the famous newspaper industry giant.
The llama has some interesting habits. They tend to defecate in one communal pile, and their pellets make great soil. But, they also serve an important function in Peruvian culture. They are primarily used as pack animals and can carry up to 100 lbs. Children are the only ones who actually ride the llamas. Llamas are also used for their wool and are usually shorn once a year. The wool comes in many colors such as brown, white, black, red, and gray, and you can buy cozy sweaters made from it. Although not served in most city restaurants, llamas are also used for their meat (sorry, Seasame Street!). Once, I tried the steak of an alpaca, a distant cousin of the llama. Mmm, mmm good.
Llamas have an interesting way of communicating. They use a series of ear, body, and tail postures. Sometimes they're used to guard sheep and they give off a shrill alarm call and humming sound when they sense danger, although they're not really fighters themselves. In fact they rarely kick and don't even bite since they only have lower teeth and rear molars. They love to spend the day wandering around a field grazing and will eat most foliage. This grazing is not harmful to their pastures since they have small split hooves and tread as lightly as deer. Maybe Disney should make a new movie called "Llambi"!
Out of the four camelids found in South America, only the llama and the alpaca have been domesticated. The vicuna and the guanaco are only found in the wild. The llama is the largest of the four and differs from the alpaca with its longer ears and tail but shorter hair. The vicuna is the smallest and has never been domesticated. Its wool however is among the finest in the world and during Inca times was used to make clothing only for the Inca. Clothes of vicuna wool are highly valued and rare, as it's an endangered and protected animal here in Peru.
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