The camel family originated in North America, where fossils of many different kinds of camel 'prototypes' have been discovered. These early camels seem to have appeared in a wide range of shapes and sizes, with the smallest being only the size of a rabbit, and the largest standing 4.5m (15ft) at the shoulder!
Eventually, the American camels migrated, some into what we call South America, and others north-west towards present day Alaska. The northward bound animals crossed into Asia over the ancient land bridge which then existed between the continents of America and Asia, and gradually evolved into today's Bactrian camel. The Arabian camel only appeared just over 6,000 years ago. It is believed to have been specially bred from the Bactrian camel as a one-humped domesticated form by tribes in Asia who left no written records of their success. The earliest reference to a one-humped camel appears on a piece of Egyptian pottery dating back to about 3,000 BC.
The South American camels did not develop humps, but there can be no mistake about their family origin if the head of the llama is studied and then compared to that of the 'true camel'.
Of the four members of the camel family in South America, two are domesticated and two are wild animals. The domesticated forms are the llama and alpaca. The llama is used as a pack animal, but it is also bred for its wool and its tender meat. Its dung is used as fuel in areas where there is little timber. The alpaca is bred for its superb wool. Wool from the alpaca was once used to weave robes for the Inca noblemen.
The guanaco is a wild member of the South American camel quartet and it still survives in reasonable numbers in the mountains of Peru and Ecuador and in the hills and plains of Patagonia.
Smallest of all camels is the vicuna. This animal stands only 90cm (30 ins) at the shoulder and weighs no more than 50kg (110lb). Once widespread on the higher plains of the Andes, the vicuna has been seriously reduced in numbers due to over-hunting. Thanks to careful protection and conservation this species has been brought back from the very brink of extinction, but it must still be regarded as a threatened wild animal in need of full protection.Read More: The Bactrian Camel