The accepted wisdom is that people began to domesticate flocks for a ready supply of food. But evidence from South America shows that some species may have been domesticated for their wool, writes Caroline Davis.
Penny Dransart, chair of the department of archaeology at the University of Wales, Lampeter, is forcing a rethink on the reasons for domestication after studying ancient fleece preserved by the extreme aridity of the world's driest desert, the Atacama, in northern Chile.
Dr Dransart said: "Focusing on the signs of domestication that can be observed in the fleece itself, unique insights are gained into the cultural processes of domestication and the relationships maintained between owners and their herd animals."
Studies of the relationship between ancient herders and their flocks have concentrated on bones because these tend to be the only organic artefacts to survive over long periods.
But a 3,000-year-old site at Tulan has revealed that spinning was very much part of daily life, with fleece made into elaborate turbans for men and children, and fringed skirts for women. Dr Dransart found untreated samples of camelid fleece, suggesting they harvested more fleece than they needed.
Dr Dransart found that Andean herders knew how to spin the fleece of vicu$a and guanaco long before other camelids, alpacas and llamas, were domesticated. In Inca times, 1400-1600AD, round-up hunts were popular. Guanaco, related to llamas, were trapped and killed but the vicu$a were shorn and released. Other Andean sites have revealed that spinning could go back as far as 11,000 years.
In Europe and Asia, the fleece of wild sheep is not suitable for spinning. Domestication caused changes in the coats, giving the fleece types and colours that exist today.
Dr Dransart's study was published earlier this year in her book Earth, Water, Fleece and Fabric: An Ethnography and Archaeology of Andean Camelid Herding.