A Very Brief History of Alpacas

Alpacas in peru

Alpacas in Peru
image by Marlon Dutra CC

Alpacas are South American members of the camelid family and come from the altiplano in the central-west region of the continent. As you might guess from the name, camelids include camels as well as llamas (animals not monks), vicunas and guacanos. The majority of alpacas in the world are in the Andean Highlands, mostly in Peru as well as Chile and Bolivia. As they are accustomed to freezing winters and mountains you can understand why our hairy little friends are much happier in cold conditions than hot ones. The Early Days Alpacas can trace their ancestry back a couple of million years and it is commonly agreed that they have been domesticated for about 6000 years. Recent DNA evidence shows that they are direct descendants of the wild vicuna and their genus name was changed from lama pacos to vicugna pacos to reflect this. Alpacas were highly prized by the Incas and allotted almost magical status. Too small to be pack animals or to be ridden, the alpaca was kept mainly for its fibre – which has wonderful warmth and softness – but also for sacrifices and for meat. Their fibre was considered the fibre of the gods and many beautiful textiles have been found dating back to that era. Alpaca breeding was controlled by Inca royalty who developed husbandry and colour programmes. Two distinct types emerged, the huacaya and the suri. (The huacaya is the fuzzier teddy-bear looking one, while the suri has long silky ringlets.) The Inca people traded and bartered using alpaca goods and wealth was judged on how many alpacas you owned. After the European “Conquest” (i.e. massacre and genocide) of Peru in the 16th century the ten million indigenous inhabitants were decimated, the alpacas massacred and the textiles burned. Just one million natives surviving by moving to higher ground, taking their remaining alpacas with them. What Happened Next As you can imagine, life was tough for the native Andean people in the harsh mountainous conditions. They survived at subsistence level and any selective breeding programmes and husbandry used by the Incas was abandoned in favour of staying alive. And so it continued for the next 450 years.

Sir Titus Salt

Sir Titus Salt

In the mid 19th century, towards the end of England’s Industrial Revolution, manufacturer Sir Titus Salt discovered bales of alpaca fibre in a warehouse in Liverpool and went on to create a luxury cloth he called “the other Inca gold” – alpaca. He sent some to the royal family and in short, it was all a huge success. He created a mill, modestly called Saltaire, dedicated exclusively to producing the shimmery, soft fabric. Problems in Peru English spinning mills were eventually set up in 1945 in Arequipa, now known as “the alpaca centre” of Peru, firmly establishing alpaca as a luxury fibre. Gradually the Peruvian government took steps to encourage programmes to improve alpaca breeding and re-establish the industry, but in 1969 a military coup changed everything. Land was confiscated and returned to peasants who lacked the skills to manage large herds. That, coupled with drought and the activities of the Shining Path terrorist group, meant that by 1990 there had been a 50% drop in the alpaca population. Alpaca Export To try and build up the herds again and provide income for farmers, the governments of Peru, Chile and Bolivia agreed to lower their export restrictions. Alpacas were exported to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Breeders in these countries now had the opportunity to invest in these lovely creatures and to work on improving the fibre and establish their own native herds. The USA stopped importing alpacas in 1998 to preserve the existing national herd.