Camels of Asia originated in North America

The landmass, which is now known as North America, evolved to something like its current “incarnation less than 200 million years ago. Before then, the continent was called Laurentia on its journey back and forth across the equator, as it joined and was separated from supercontinents. Over billions of years, whether Laurentia or North America, the continent took its form through many spectacular collisions and massive rifts”. (See pictorial journey

45 or 50 million years ago, researchers have established from fossils found in the White River Badlands, Pennington Co., South Dakota, USA that there existed the earliest known North American camel genus, they named Protylopus and it was the size of a rabbit. 

Drawing of Protylopus

This evolved into Camelops, the last species of North American camel, which died out where it had begun, but reappeared in Asia where we mostly associate the camel. The American paleontologist Joseph Leidy (1823-1891) first described the species in 1854.

Camelops lived between 3.6 million and 11,700 years ago, and roamed from Alaska to Mexico. By now they were larger than humans,  perhaps seven feet tall at the shoulder and weighed around 1800 pounds. This is slightly larger than the modern dromedaries that stand between 5.5 and 6.5 feet tall and weigh between 660 and 1320 pounds. It had elongated spines on its anterior back which suggest it had a single hump like the dromedary.

Image of Camelops and skeleton

In 2015, a team of US and Canadian researchers led by Peter Heintzman of the University of California Santa Cruz (USSC) analyzed the DNA found in Camelops fossils and compared it to that of living camel species. The researchers found more similarities between the prehistoric camel and the Old World camels than between Camelops and the South American camelids. The Camelops and camelids are in the class camelidae.

Image of feet of camelidae

Image of Bactrian camel

Image of Dromedary Camel

Although the Bactrian camel and dromedary are large, typically arid-desert-adapted mammals, alpacas are adapted to plateaus. 

South American camelids

Image of present day, mostly hybridised camelids

Some would say “The Great American Interchange happened three million years ago when volcanic activity formed the Isthmus of Panama that connected South and North America. As the two continents had been separated for over 200 million years, very different animals had evolved within them. Animals native to South America included porcupines, armadillos and some marsupials including the ancestors of the Virginia opossum. The North American camel was among the animals that headed south. The American camel’s descendants became the guanacos, vicuñas, llamas, and alpacas.”

But the DNA research cited above seems to suggest the origin of camelids is maybe not quite so certain, more likely still a mystery.

It is currently considered that the two wild forms, the larger guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and the daintier vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) diverged from a common ancestor some two million years ago, an event unrelated to much more recent domestication. Genetic research indicates that the smaller alpaca (Lama pacos L.), is the domesticated version of the smaller wild form, the vicuña; while the larger llama (Lama glama L) is the domesticated form of the larger guanaco. Physically, the line between llama and alpaca has been blurred as a result of deliberate hybridization between the two species over the last 35 years or so.

Dr Jane Wheeler, a long time researcher of the subject, says results indicating that the alpaca descends from the vicuña and the llama from the guanaco, leads to a more correct classification of these forms: Vicugna pacos and Lama glama respectively, and that such extensive hybridization has occurred that only 20% of alpacas and 60% of llamas are genetically pure. This all adds to the mystery of the origins of these amazing animals, so suited to the rocky terrain of the Andes.

Image of Telarmachay Rockshelter, near Lima, Peru

This amazing ancient site built by hunter/gatherer’s around 9000 – 7000 years ago was where llamas were herded and slaughtered for meat. Dr Jane Wheeler has researched this place and documented her findings.

Within a couple of thousand years, the people had domesticated alpacas and llamas using a predominant herding economy based on llama and alpaca.

Research has estimated that by 3800 years ago, the people at Telarmachay based 73% of their diet on camelids.

The Quechua (the state language of the Inca) word for dried camelid meat is ch’arki, Spanish “charqui,” and the etymological progenitor of the English term jerky.

In addition, the animals were all used as fuel, as well as wool for clothing and a source of string for making quipu and baskets. 1,400 years ago, they were kept in herds on the northern coasts of Peru and Ecuador. In particular, the Inca used llamas to move their imperial pack trains into southern Colombia and central Chile.

Image of Quipu

The Spanish conquest had a disastrous effect on both llama and alpaca population.  The history of the Andes and the Inca before the Spanish Conquest may be told in llama poop:

Researchers have found that in a small, dried-up lake in highland Peru, mites that ate these creatures’ feces closely track major historical events through their population growth, including the rise and fall of the Incan Empire. In certain kinds of environments, this new method of peering back in time might be more accurate than another common one: using dung-dwelling fungal spores to track environmental conditions in the past.

The ancient lake in question, called Marcacocha, is now a wetland high in the Andes, near the Incan city of Ollantaytambo. But before it disappeared about 200 years ago, it was a small pool surrounded by grassland and a popular stop for Incan llama caravans. Thousands of llamas carrying trade goods such as salt and coca leaves marched through the basin, drank from the lake, and defecated en masse. That dung washed into the lake, where it was eaten by oribatid mites, a half-millimeter-long spider relative that lived in the lake.

The more llamas that passed through Marcacocha, the more poop the mites had to eat, and the larger their populations could grow. When the mites died, they sank into the lake mud, preserved where Alex Chepstow-Lusty, a paleoecologist at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., found them in a sediment core centuries later.

When Chepstow-Lusty counted the number of mites in each layer of the core, he found that their population boomed when the Incan Empire dominated the Andes from 1438 C.E. to 1533 C.E. But after the Spanish arrived, the number of mites in the core plummeted. That’s because so many of the Indigenous people and their animals died during and after the conquest of the empire, Chepstow-Lusty says. Although the mite population rose again once European cows and pigs moved in and started to poop around the lake, it dropped off around 1720 C.E., when a smallpox epidemic swept through the area.”(see

In the next blog I will look at the origin of horses. Strange that horses apparently fear camels. The smell of the camel, according to Herodotus, alarmed and disoriented horses, making camels an effective anti-cavalry weapon when employed by the Achaemenid Persians in the Battle of Thymbra.

But the smell of Llamas did not seem to bother the horses which carried the conquistadors as they wreaked havoc amongst the unsuspecting Inca populations. If they had, perhaps it would have been a different story.

Image of camels in battle from

About borderslynn

Retired, living in the Scottish Borders after living most of my life in cities in England. I can now indulge my interest in all aspects of living close to nature in a wild landscape. I live on what was once the Iapetus Ocean which took millions of years to travel from the Southern Hemisphere to here in the Northern Hemisphere. That set me thinking and questioning and seeking answers. In 1998 I co-wrote Millennium Countdown (US)/ A Business Guide to the Year 2000 (UK) see
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