Alpacas are members of the South American Camelid family along with the guanaco, llama and vicuna.
Today’s camelids evolved in North America between nine and eleven million years ago. Some three million years ago a wild form known as Hemiauchenia migrated across the isthmus of Panama into South America. This animal had long limbs, a long neck and was bigger than today’s guanaco. It developed into Palaeolama and Lama and other ancestral forms and eventually, some twelve thousand years ago, two species survived Lama (the wild guanaco) and Vicugna (the wild vicuna). For many years it was thought that the alpaca and the llama were descended from the wild guanaco. However, a team of scientists have proved by using DNA that the alpaca was descended from the wild vucuna and its name was changed from Lama pacos to Vicuna pacos.
Archaeologists believe that the domestication of alpacas and llamas was underway between 4,000 and 5,000 BC and that the animals were central to a whole series of cultures from the Chavin, Moche, Nazca, Huati, Pucara and finally the Inca.
The Inca (1438 – 1532) were obsessed with fine cloth and measured their wealth in textiles. They had a highly regimented state-controlled textile industry aimed at ensuring fibre quality for consumption and trade. Records of flock sizes were kept on quipus, knotted recording devices, and there was an emphasis on breeding for pure colours particularly brown, black and white for sacrificial purposes. Evidence supports the theory that fibre quality was considerably higher before the Spanish Conquest.
In 1991 archaeologists working at El Yaral in the pre-incan Chiribaya culture found alpacas that had been sacrificed and buried. Due to the extremely dry climate the animals had been mummified and their fleece was found to be far finer and more uniform than fleeces today.
The Spanish conquest effectively brought to an end thousands of years of selective breeding. It is estimated that 90 percent of the alpaca and llama population disappeared within one hundred years of the conquest and eighty percent of the indigenous people. The Spanish introduced their own horses, mules, sheep and pigs forcing the surviving camelids to the marginal habitats where only they could survive due to their evolutionary advantage.
Andean pastoralism found itself sidelined and it wasn’t until the English entrepreneur Sir Titus Salt discovered alpaca fibre in the 1860′s that European investment was involved, the major processing mills were built in Arequipa in Peru and alpaca became established as a luxury fibre.
Sir Titus Salt
Things took a turn for the worse in 1969 when a military coup heralded a period of radical land reform. Large farms were confiscated by the government and redistributed to the peasants and many of the new alpaca farmers lacked the skills to run large herds. The alpaca population dropped to a low of about two and a half million animals by 1992 – a decline of fifty percent.
Moves to help these farmers were disrupted by the Shining Path guerrillas who twice destroyed the La Reya reserach station that was funded by the government to improve alpaca husbandry. Today funding from America, the European Community and the Peruvian and Chilean governments is being invested in the region to attempt to improve husbandy techniques, to put an end to the cross breeding of alpacas and llamas and to improve fleece quality.
The export of large numbers of alpacas to the USA, Australia and Europe began in the 1980′s and continued through the 1990′s. Pedigree registers were set up in most countries and imported animals had to pass a screening test to prevent animals with genetic defects entering the country. Breeders in these first world countries with accurate DNA based registries are able to track bloodlines and develop pedigrees. This breeding accuracy should enable them to produce animals with finer, denser fleeces that can compete with other fibres such as cashmere.
Worldwide, the alpaca population is estimated to be three million, with the majority in the South American regions of Peru, Chile and Bolivia. Today the alpaca is farmed not only in South America, but also in North America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and most of the countries of Europe.