A Brief History of the Alpaca
The migration of ancient camelids across the globe accounts for 4 of the 6 species. The story of llamas and alpacas came much later and was not a process of evolution, but through the work of man.
More than 6000 years ago, long before the Roman Empire or Egypt’s King Tutankhamen, highland people of the Southern hemisphere began a selective breeding program of camelids and created 2 new multi-purpose breeds – the llama and alpaca.
The delicate looking wild vicuña, who’s fibre is often referred to as the finest animal fibre in the world, was bred and domesticated to become alpaca, while the sturdier guanaco became the llama.
In North America buffalo were used by indigenous people as food, fuel (by burning dried dung) and the hides were used as clothing and shelter.
Unlike buffaloes, however, llamas and alpaca were fully domesticated. This allowed the Inca forefathers to also use the alpaca wool for weaving and to use the llamas as beasts of burden, thereby allowing the movement of goods between highland herders, temperate Andean valley farmers and coastal fishermen.
The trading of goods between peoples was crucial to the development of the Andean cultures, which culminated in the Inca Empire stretching from the equator to the pacific coast of present day Chile.
In Inca society, production and use of camelid fibre, from both domesticated alpaca and wild vicuña, was strictly regulated and controlled and permeated all aspects of life from religion to art.
The Inca people had many skills in handicrafts. They knew and practiced many different type of hand weaving, incorporating the use of alpaca, llama, guanaco and vicuña fibre in their work. Inca craftsmen who specialized in working with metal and pottery often used the images of alpacas and llamas in their works, attesting to the importance of these fine animals to everyday Inca life.
The high Andean planes were an inhospitably cold and windy place. The Inca civilization put much effort into developing the alpaca and the soft fibre they produced. Alpaca cloth was so precious that it was used as money. Status and wealth were counted in cloth by the Inca court and armies were even paid in cloth. The Inca state-controlled textile industry was highly regimented. Fibre was distributed according to one’s social class. Commoners were allowed cloth made from guanaco or llama. Alpaca cloth was used by high ranking officials and nobility. A standing death penalty existed for Inca subject’s caught with vicuña fibre – which was strictly reserved for Royalty. The Inca people were committed to preventing their new camelid breeds from inter-breeding, thereby keeping the fine fibre qualities of the alpaca separate from the carrying capability of the llama.
The Spanish invasion of South America saw the demise of the Inca people, and a near eradication of llamas and alpacas and along with them thousands of years of selective breeding. The Spanish did not understand or appreciate these new camelid breeds. They favoured their own livestock, including sheep, which in turn spread disease – further declining the llama and alpaca gene pool. Spanish colonists saw llamas and alpacas, and the indigenous people, as inferior, not from any legitimate findings but from pure European ethnocentrism. Because they were “non-European” llamas and alpacas were seen as unfit for use. For the next 300 years Andean llama and alpaca keepers were pushed to the fringe of Spanish colonial society.
It was not until the 1860’s that an English wool importer noticed Peruvian sheep wool arriving at the dock in sacks made of a strange superb quality fibre. This “discovery” of alpaca fibre eventually led to the involvement in the use of alpaca fibre by the western world at large.