Marcia Stephenson on international research, llamas, and other camelids

Q&A with Marcia Stephenson on international research, llamas, and other camelids

Camelids—a category which includes llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas—are vital to the cultures and economies of the Andes. The animals have also been at the heart of ecological and social catastrophe: Europeans overhunted wild vicuña and guanaco and imposed husbandry and breeding practices that decimated llama and alpaca flocks that had been successfully tended by Indigenous peoples for generations.

Yet the colonial encounter with these animals was not limited to the New World. Marcia Stephenson’s new book Llamas beyond the Andes tells the five-hundred-year history of animals removed from their native habitats and transported overseas. Read on to learn more about Stephenson’s process, surprising twists in the writing and research of the book, and what’s next for her work.

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What was your first contact with Andean camelids? Was there a moment you knew you had to write about them?

My first contact with llamas occurred back in 1973 when I spent a year in Potosí, Bolivia as a Rotary exchange student. I would see flocks of llamas or llama caravans whenever I traveled. The animals’ amazing faces and the beautiful colors of their fleece captivated me, and I couldn’t take enough photographs of them. It wasn’t until many years later, however, that I began to formulate a research project involving the camelids. A fortuitous discovery of a book of nineteenth-century circus posters that included images of llamas in French spectacles sparked my interest in pursuing the stories of camelids moved outside of the Andes to new habitats around the world.

Were there any unexpected places the writing of your book took you—either literally or metaphorically? Where were some of the most important locales for your research on camelids in and beyond the Andes?

The most unexpected and exciting place I visited while writing the book was Laguna Blanca (Catamarca), Argentina. Faculty from the Universidad de Catamarca School of Archaeology contacted me after they saw online that I had given a presentation on Englishman Charles Ledger (1818-1905) and the year he spent in Laguna Blanca with a group of Bolivian Indigenous shepherds, preparing a flock of llamas and alpacas for transportation to Australia. Under the direction of Professor Daniel Delfino Edery, a team of faculty and students from the university has been excavating sites around Laguna Blanca for several years and they believed that they had discovered, among other sites, the location where Ledger and his men set up their camp and corrals. A small group of us traveled to the Biosphere Reserve to see the area and projects. I brought along color copies of the watercolors discussed in the book that were created by one member of Ledger’s group. The university team consulted the images to help confirm their hypothesis that they had indeed discovered Ledger and the Bolivians’ camp.

Another important site for my research on camelids was Australia. The Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales) in Sydney holds Charles Ledger’s diary and the original watercolor drawings documenting his travels through the Andes. The several medals that he received for his work bringing a large flock of llamas and alpacas to New South Wales are also housed at the library. It was important for my analysis to be able to study the illustrations and medals firsthand.

I was fortunate to be able to spend a year at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine, dissecting a llama, studying small ruminant medicine, and the history of medical illustration of the animals. As part of this program, I volunteered with the lovely flock of alpacas at the White Violet Center for Eco Justice (a ministry of the Sisters of Providence) in southern Indiana. The time there provided me with the opportunity to learn more about herd management, shearing, and the processing of fleece.

In a similar vein, what are some of the most surprising things you learned in the course of your research? What’s a fact a reader might be surprised to find nested in a book about the movement of llamas and camelids within and outside of the Andes?

The history of bezoar stones taken from camelid carcasses and the complicated medicinal, economic, and environmental role they played in Europe and the Andes, was an unexpected find. Many readers are intrigued by the variety of illnesses, plagues, and poisons the stones were believed to effectively combat.

Another surprise in the book is the story behind the cover image and the two llama models Llucky and Llinda Llee. Both llamas became celebrities after appearing on television programs like The Garry Moore Show. Llinda Llee created a splash when she arrived in Dallas for the South America Fortnight in 1959.

How do you see some overarching themes of Llamas beyond the Andes translating to other studies of nonhuman animals, and even to other areas of study?

The book demonstrates that the contact zone continues to be a productive point of departure for many areas of interdisciplinary research. In this case, camelid contact zones offer a unique investigative tool that brings to light a largely unexamined, centuries-long trail of documents and material artifacts. By following this trail, the book reveals the methodological importance of deploying interdisciplinary perspectives to analyze both verbal and non-verbal evidence. The focus on camelids, moreover, has resulted in new understandings of the role played by Indigenous peoples in scientific knowledge production.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am working on completing three articles that are spin-offs from the book. They include: the history of another nineteenth-century flock of llamas and alpacas that was taken out of the Andes and transported to Australia; an in-depth analysis of the kinds of diseases that impacted the camelid populations moved out of the Andes; and a final piece examining Charles Ledger and his connection[ns with the Kallawaya Indigenous peoples who are itinerant medical specialists.

Marcia Stephenson is an associate professor of Spanish at Purdue University. Her book Gender and Modernity in Andean Bolivia received the A. B. Thomas Award for Excellence.