Changing Planet

The Hunt for Alpaca … Skeletons

Sarah Kennedy is a zooarchaeologist investigating the lives of native Peruvians under Spanish rule in their colonial period. By analyzing the remains of animals in past settlements, she is able to piece together a mosaic of knowledge about how ancient people lived.

Midway through my research season in Northern Peru I started to realize I needed to find myself an alpaca. It wasn’t just because the North Coast of Peru, a mostly barren desert devoid of mountains and alpaca and llama herds, was making me miss the beautiful ruggedness of the high Andean mountains. It was also because I really just needed an alpaca for my research. I had found some interesting long bone fragments in the food waste from the Colonial sector of our site, and I was pretty sure they were leg bones from alpacas or llamas. It would be interesting to see if the local people were still eating some of their traditional Andean domestic animals (llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs), along with the newly introduced European animals such as chickens, geese, pigs, and sheep. So, I decided it was a good time to take a trip south to Cusco and find an alpaca skeleton so I could compare my ancient bone fragments with a present day alpaca specimen!

Comparative alpaca skeleton, used to help identify camelid consumption in the past. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
A comparative alpaca skeleton from Cusco, Peru, used to help zooarchaeologists identify llama and alpaca consumption in ancient Peru. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

I arrived in Cusco and was given immediate access to archaeologist Karen Durand’s alpaca specimen at the Andean Institute of Archaeology’s laboratory. I was able to take photographs of each bone element and compare the alpaca skeleton to some zooarchaeological remains from a colleague’s collection in Cusco. With the help of the alpaca skeleton, I was able to correctly identify alpaca and llama consumption at our site in Northern Peru! I just had to go all the way to the Southern Andes in order to do it!

Alpaca and llama remains (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Alpaca and llama remains from ancient food waste collected from the site of Hatun Cotuyoc, near Cusco, Peru. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

My remaining days in Cusco consisted of visiting archaeological sites in the region, helping me put our colonial site of Carrizales into a broader historic and geographical context. One of the most interesting sites I visited was the Inca site of Wanakauri on one of the highest hills outside of Cusco. The site, run by American archaeologist Dr. Steve Kosiba, was an important Inca “huaca” or holy site during the Inca occupation of the Cusco Valley, dating back to early origin myths of the city of Cusco. My time in Cusco was very productive and I returned to Northern Peru with more comparative skeletal material and a breath of fresh air from the ruggedly beautiful Andean Mountains.

Peruvian archaeologists Sayda Alegre and Arturo Rivera locate the city of Cusco from one of the mountains surrounding the city. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Peruvian archaeologists Sayda Alegre (right) and Arturo Rivera (left) locate the city of Cusco in the distance, standing on one of the highest mountains surrounding the city. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)
Archaeologist Sarah Kennedy watches archaeological excavations at the Inca site of Wanakauri, near Cusco, Peru. (Photo by Sayda Alegre).
Archaeologist Sarah Kennedy watches archaeological excavations at the ancient Inca holy site of Wanakauri, near Cusco, Peru. (Photo by Sayda Alegre)
Peruvian archaeologist Sayda Alegre looks off into the distance from the archaeological site of Wanakauri near Cusco, Peru. (Photo by Sarah Kennedy)

Read More by Sarah Kennedy

Sarah Kennedy is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Florida, as well as a National Geographic Young Explorer. Her current research focuses on ancient food practices in Peru. Specifically, she is researching how the diet and daily life of indigenous Peruvians changed during the Spanish Conquest on the North Coast of Peru.

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