Fossil records show that modern day South American camelids originated on the plains of North America, migrating southwest to the Andean region more than 50 million years ago. By the end of the last ice age, camelids became extinct in North America while the animals of South America developed into the present day wild vicuña and wild guanaco of the Andean highlands (Peru, Bolivia, and Chile). Biologically, the alpaca shares much in common with the wild vicuña. Approximately 6000 years ago, the native Quechuas and Aymara populations of the region domesticated and selectively bred these wild animals into what is believed to be today’s alpaca.
With the formation of the Incan Empire in the early 1400s, we start to get a slightly clearer picture of the history of the alpaca. Among the Incas, special religious meaning was given to the alpaca and these revered animals were used as sacrificial offerings to appease the Incan’s gods. Because of this special religious significance, the Incas separated their alpacas from other livestock. They then further separated the animals by color and over many generations of careful husbandry, these animals evolved into at least 22 distinguished fleece colors. The couturiers permitted to spin and weave alpaca fiber were specially chosen and the fiber used to make clothing was reserved solely for royal family members and high ranking government officials.
The arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores in the early 1500s, brought the decimation of the alpaca population with the introduction of diseases through their European livestock and the cruel policies toward the indigenous people and the animals they owned. In fact, they made few distinctions between the wild and the domesticated forms of camelids and attempts to classify the four species did not occur until the mid-1750s. Although the Conquistadores recognized the significance of the alpaca to the Incan people, they saw it as a way to gain control of the Incan population. By slaughtering the alpacas by the millions (Peruvian historians estimate as much as 90%), the Spaniards deprived the native people of their food, clothing and fuel. In turn, about 80% of the rural population also died due to the slaughter of their life-sustaining alpacas. Those who survived this onslaught fled with their dwindling herds to the Altiplano, a high mountain desert found in the harsh and remote area of the Andes.
To the Spanish, precious metals were how wealth was measured and it wasn’t until the mid-1800s when Sir Titus Salt, of England, accidentally discovered that the bags carrying a shipment of sheep’s wool were made of a superior material with remarkable sheen and feel. He also found a bag containing some raw fiber and after processing it, he realized the potential for soft yarns and cloth. After modifying his existing equipment, he began to supply the luxurious material to British royalty and aristocracy.
Despite the English “discovery” of alpaca fiber in the mid nineteenth century, shifting economic forces in Latin America combined with years of drought and the systematic slaughter of alpacas by terrorists (repeating the history of the Conquistadores and their goal of gaining control over the people of the rural areas) caused the alpaca population to dwindle even further.
The first half of the 20th century produced wealhy property owner and cooperative agriculural ventures purchasing much of the pasture land used by the Ayara and Quechua shepherds, or pastoralists. A military coup in late 1969 an the democratic government developed in the early '70s brought about a period of radical land reforms and subsequent events which ultimately led to furher decimation of the alpaca population. Records show that the number of animals in Peru declined nearly 50% from 1967 to 1992.
In 1980, the first 10 alpacas were brought into the U.S. 1983 and ’84 saw the first large-scale importation of alpacas to North America.
Photo Courtesy of Matthew Lloyd, EP Cambridge at www.alpacastud.com.au
In 1998, the general membership of The Alpaca Registry, Inc. voted to close the registry to importations. By closing A.R.I. to further importations, the future market of alpaca breeding is protected from premature market saturation. At such time the general membership decides that more genetic diversity is necessary, they will vote to re-open the registry to select groups of alpaca importations.