Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Llama and Alpaca

Lama glama and Lama pacos

By Jeremy Trombley

Llamas and alpacas are camelid species, unique in being the only large domesticated animals in the New World. They were domesticated in the andean region of South America thousands of years ago, but have not really diffused to other regions until recently. Although, they were primarily used as pack animals and for their wool, they also served as an important food source, providing one of the few high protein foods in the region.


Llamas are predominantly pack animals, while alpacas are mainly kept for their soft wool. Llamas probably played a larger role as a food source than did alpacas, as they were frequently used to transport goods from the highlands to the lowlands and slaughtered there to provide meat to the protein poor coast. Parts of both animals are also frequently used in rituals or for medicinal purposes. However, most of the time llamas and alpacas are only slaughtered after their other useful functions have diminished or if they are diseased.

Some portion of meat is consumed fresh after the animal is slaughtered. The meat is white or pinkish in color and has been described as having a spongy texture. It is comparable in protein content to other meats, but leaner. The blood and intestines were also used to make a haggis-like dish.

However, the majority of llama and alpaca meat is dried to preserve it for sale in other markets. The meat is cut into thin strips and soaked in brine for several days, after which is it left out for two to three weeks in May and June when the temperature falls to below 15 degrees centigrade. The alternating cold and intense sunlight during the day dries the meat into what is known as Charqui (Ch'arki in Quechua), which is where the english word jerky originates. The meat is easily transportable, keeps for a long time and is free from parasites and other pests which may infect meat products. Much of the charqui produced in the highlands is transported to the lowlands where it can be exchanged for maize, fruit and coca. The primary consumers of Llama and alpaca meat are indians and it is stigmatized in the andes as “indian food.” As a result, it is often avoided by many mestizos and people of European descent.

Remarkably, llamas and alpacas were never utilized to produce milk for human consumption, and even after the introduction of other milk providing species such as cows and sheep the practice was never transferred to llamas and alpacas. The reasons for this are not clear, and researchers have suggested a variety of causes including lactose intolerance among the natives, and small milk quantities obtained from the animals. However, none of these explanations has satisfied the scientific community.

In the last few decades, people in North America have started raising both llamas and alpacas for a variety of purposes. Alpacas continue to provide a highly sought after wool for yarns and other applications, and llamas are often used as guard animals for flocks of sheep. However, neither animal has become a significant source of meat for consumers in North or South America.


International Alpaca Association

Gade, Daniel W. “Llama/Alpaca.” The Cambridge World History of Food. Ed. Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 555-559.