ANIMALS Discover, every day, an analysis of our partner The Conversation. This Tuesday, an archaeologist explains the historical importance of these South American camelids
Lamas leading a caravan (locally called delanteros) — Nicolas Goepfert/The Conversation
The expression “gold of the Andes” is taken from the eponymous book by Jorge Flores Ochoa, Kim Mac Quarrie and Javier Portus (published in 1994 by Jordi Blassi in Barcelona) on the four species of camelid ;s South Americans, to namely the guanaco, the vicuña, the llama and the alpaca. How did these animals inherit such a laudatory title, while other animal figures from the Andean bestiary such as the condor and the puma hold a more emblematic place in the common imagination? The reasons are various, but the main one is that these camelids, and in particular the two domestic taxa that are the llama (Lama glama) and the alpaca (Vicugna pacos), are two fundamental players in the game. development of pre-Hispanic (or pre-Columbian) societies in the Andes.
By Andes, we mean ààgrave; both a geographical and cultural space which includes the famous cordillera, but also the coast which is a long desert space caught between the Pacific Ocean and the coast. the west and the mountainous piedmont to the east.
These camelids, through the intermediary of the caravans of llamas, allowed exchanges between great distance, not only between the coast, high altitudes and the Amazon, but also between different latitudes. They were part of a system called verticality which allowed the exchange of products between different ecozones, fish and marine shellfish being, for example, bartered for potatoes and other Andean tubers.
The caravans thus constituted a dynamic link between the different societies that populated the Andes before the arrival of the Europeans. Camelids did not only serve as beasts of burden, as all parts of their bodies were used to like their meat for food, fibers for textiles or even bones to make tools. They were also used in many funerary and sacrificial rituals and are still today one of the main offerings in the propitiatory acts of communities today.
Ritual offering (mesa) with the deposit of the heart of a sacrificed lama – Nicolas Goepfert/The Conversation
A challenge for researchers
The only large vertebrates domesticated more than 4000 years ago in the Americas, they represent a real challenge for researchers working in this cultural area. Indeed, by being at the center of the socio-economic and religious practices of past societies, they have been very quickly associated with received ideas that today need to be deconstructed.
One of the most tenacious ideas concerns their geographical origin. Their presence on the Peruvian coast is attested since the beginning of our era on numerous archaeological sites of the middle valleys and the desert of the Pacific coast, whereas today they have completely disappeared from this environment following the the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. However, their presence in this space is not something “natural” their centers of domestication (high plateaus of Junin in Peru, south of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, northern Chile and northwestern Argentina) and current habitats are all at altitude and for some at low altitudes. more than 4000 m above sea level.
Resolutely high-altitude species, llamas and alpacas have, over time, been able to adapt to other environments, other landscapes and territories, to other climates and other vegetation. This complex process, under the control of humans, took several hundred years and has remained. long misunderstood because of a postulate aimed at limit them to high altitudes. The development over the last twenty years of isotopic analyzes in the Andean area has made it possible to better understand pastoral practices and the management of herds by ancient societies. These analyzes tell us in particular that these animals were high at low altitude and foddered with maize, perhaps to supplement poorer coastal vegetation. Human control has been such as maize has become the main component of their diet and reaches to the chimú (900-1470 CE) nearly 70% of the plants eaten by camelids.
Large-scale human and animal sacrifice
This period is particularly interesting, as it sees the performance of human and animal sacrifice on a scale never before achieved. The recent discoveries on the sites of Huanchaquito – Las Llamas and Pampa la Cruz considerably renew our knowledge of these ritual practices considered so particular for our contemporary societies. Subject of the documentary Peru, sacrifices in the kingdom of Chimor, these sacrifices occupied a central place for the societies of the northern coast of Peru.
Location of the archaeological sites of Huanchaquito-Las Llamas and Pampa la Cruz – Nicolas Goepfert/The Conversation
The sacrifice of children and camelids was to be a highlight for these societies, uniting its various components around gifts of such great value. The temporality and the circumstances (not to speak of causes) vary according to the sites: following an unequal frequency perhaps cyclical in connection with a ritual calendar at different times; Pampa la Cruz, these sacrifices responded more to the existence of a catastrophic climatic event of the type El Niño at Huanchaquito-Las Llamas.
Sacrificed en masse on this last site (137 children, 3 adults and 206 camelids), they were gathered in small groups on the other to reach there. several hundred more. What place did the camelids occupy alongside the children and teenagers put in care? dead on these sites? Chosen for their young age, for the color of their coat and perhaps for their sex (DNA analyzes will soon provide us with answers), domestic camelids accompanied these young deceased in their journey to the underworld.
Camelid sacrificed on the site of Huanchaquito-Las Llamas – Nicolas Goepfert/The Conversation
Other analyzes tell us about the activities around these sacrifices. The isotopic biogeochemistry first tells us that the immolated specimens came from different herds, thus suggesting an orderly management of animal sacrificial victims. The microscopic identification of starch grains shows that a specific menu (including chilli and cassava) was given to them. given shortly before their death. Finally, the presence of parasitized animals indicates diseased animals may have been sacrificed alongside other healthy specimens.
General view of the mass sacrifice of Huanchaquito–Las Llamas – Nicolas Goepfert/The Conversation
The variety ritual practices is gradually revealed to us through the multiplication of analyzes and thanks to preservation of the remains which is exceptional. However, one area still remains largely unexplored. Indeed, identification to the species level is impossible. from bone remains, as the four taxa are osteologically close. This remains difficult to understand. get even with ancient DNA. Also, a new field of investigation is opening up with paleoproteomics, which studies all the proteins of an organism, and in this specific case, archaeological remains. First results show all the difficulty to identify archaeological specimens to the species level, but open up a very promising new avenue of research that can be applied both to both bone and fiber. Beyond species identification, which is in itself a challenge, these data mainly provide information on the cultural choices made by ancient societies at the time of sacrifices.
The ritual sphere is never far from the economic and domestic sphere. Before they could sacrifice hundreds of beasts, the Chimús had to raising these animals in an environment that was, at least at first, unfamiliar. They nevertheless benefited from the heritage of the societies that preceded them such as the Mochicas or Lambayeque-Sicán.
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The experiment carried out with llamas near the Tinajones reservoir (Valley of Lambayeque, north coast of Peru) shows that it is not so obvious that introduce (and here reintroduce) species in an environment so different from that of the cordillera. Poorer vegetation and warmer climatic conditions have forced breeders to adapt their practices to the specificity camelids compared to their habits and their differences with European species (horse, beef, sheep, pig, among others). With the increasing desertification and aridification of many areas in the world, we have everything to do with it. learn how these species adapt to a desert environment considered, a priori, as not very hospitable for their breeding.
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This review has been written by Nicolas Goepfert, in charge of of research in archeology of the Americas at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.
Original article was published. published on The Conversation site.
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