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The Story of the Alpaca

Alpacas are much more than just cute little "fuzzy camels"! These South American camelids have a very interesting and colorful history. A better understanding of their history lends a greater appreciation for these wonderful creatures and the opportunities they provide.

In The Beginning

The fossil records indicate that there was an alpaca-like animal that lived in North America once upon a time. All of those ancient animals died out, so today the alpaca is found indigenously just in South America. Heaviest concentrations are in the countries of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, with smaller populations in Ecuador, Argentina, and Paraguay. There is an especially heavy population around the Lake Titicaca area, on the border between Bolivia and Peru.

The alpaca has been domesticated for a very long time. Nobody knows for sure how long they have been tamed, but it is undoubtedly thousand of years. Two native people groups, the Quechuas and Aymaras, are credited with first domesticating these animals, consuming their meat, spinning their fiber into clothing, and burning their manure for fuel. Although little is known about how the Quechuas and Aymaras cared for the alpacas in the ancient days, it is clear that the alpaca readily took on a significant role in everyday life, much like the bison did for the native people of North America.

The Incas

The story of the alpaca becomes much clearer beginning in the early 1400’s, with the formation of the Incan Empire. The Incas conquered virtually the entire western half of South America, carving out an empire that extended from (modern-day) Columbia and Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south, to Argentina in the east. They were noted for their many archeological feats (including such marvels as Machu Picchu) and advancements in the fiber arts – all accomplished during a period of less than one hundred years.

The Incas bestowed special religious significance on the alpaca, sacrificing an alpaca at sunrise, noon, and sunset to appease their pagan gods. Primarily because of this special religious significance, the Incas separated their alpacas from other forms of livestock and segregated the herds by color. After several generations, the Incas ascertained that the alpaca as a species is capable of producing some 22 separate and distinguishable colors. In Incan society, only specially designated couturiers were permitted to spin and weave alpaca fiber, and clothing made from alpaca was reserved exclusively for members of the royal family and highest government officials.

Spain Arrives

Unfortunately, the story of the alpaca goes downhill dramatically with the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the early 1500’s. Certainly there were some positive aspects of the Spanish Colonial Period, but there were also some really terrible aspects. Speaking strictly from the viewpoint of the alpaca, the arrival of the Spanish colonists was not a good thing at all, for a number of reasons.

First, the Spaniards brought with them their European livestock – dogs, goats, chickens, and sheep – particularly the fine-fleeced Merino sheep. Those animals competed for scarce pasturelands and also damaged the fragile terrain along the coastal and mountainous regions of (what is today) Peru. Additionally, the European livestock carried diseases to which the alpacas were not immune, so thousands of alpacas died. One could be pragmatic about this and think this was an "unintentional consequence" of the arrival of the Spaniards. But the story gets much worse.

As more boatloads of Conquistadors arrived, the Spaniards became increasingly more belligerent toward the native people. After all, their goal was to find additional sources of silver and gold for the Spanish treasury, and to conquer additional territory for the King and Queen of Spain. It didn’t take long for the Conquistadors to recognize the significant role that the alpaca played in the lives of the native people. Not only did the alpaca have great sociological and religious connotations, but the alpaca also continued to be the primary source of food, clothing, and fuel, especially in the rural areas. The Spaniards reasoned that if they could deprive the native people of their alpacas, this would be a relatively easy way to bring them under their control.

So that’s exactly what the Conquistadors did – they slaughtered the alpacas by the millions, leaving their bodies in the fields to rot. The devastation was profound, and the alpaca was taken to the brink of extinction. Peruvian historians today estimate that as many as 90% of the entire world’s population of alpacas were killed, and about 80% of the human population in the rural areas also died as a result of being deprived of their life-sustaining alpacas. [Consider the parallels between the story of the alpaca and that of the North American bison and Native Americans.]

The Quechuas, Aymaras, and Incas outsmarted the Spaniards by hiding some of their alpacas. It’s a good thing they did because ultimately, that’s what may have ensured the survival of the species. They took some of their alpacas to a remote area of the Andes called Altiplano, which is a high-mountain dessert, ranging in elevation from approximately 10,000 to 16,000 feet (=3,000 to 4,900 meters). It’s a very windy, dusty, barren place, where only the hardiest physical specimens can survive on low quantities of low-protein vegetation.

The "Re-Discovery" of Alpaca Fleece

Fast-forwarding the "historical clock" brings us next to the mid-1800’s, when something truly wonderful happened for the alpaca. That is: the "discovery" by the British of how to process alpaca fleece on a large-scale, commercial basis – it’s something that might not have happened if not for the vision of one man.

The late 1700’s and early 1800’s saw the arrival of the Industrial Revolution throughout Europe. This was the era of Charles Dickens…of very polluted cities with sooty air, cholera-laden waterways, and child laborers. It was in this environment that a man by the name of Sir Titus Salt acquired a package of raw alpaca fleece. He saw its tremendous potential for making soft yarns and garments and set about the task of modifying the existing equipment at his mill to accommodate the lanolin-free fiber of the alpaca. He then developed a luxuriously soft alpaca cloth that came into favor with the British royal family, spreading later to the aristocrats of continental Europe. Sir Titus became a very wealthy man. He reinvested his wealth in building a large alpaca-exclusive mill called "Saltaire" in the British countryside, providing modern housing for his workers and improving both their living conditions and their productivity.

Thanks to Sir Titus, the modern world has alpaca included among its luxury fibers, available year-round, all over the globe. Alpaca is considered by many fashion designers to be a preeminent fiber with which to work singularly, or in combination with other luxury fibers like angora, mohair, silk, and cashmere.

"Modern Times"

In the Twentieth century, shifting economic forces, drought, and fifteen years of alpaca killings by the "Sendero Luminoso" ("Shining Path") terrorists in prime alpaca-growing regions wreaked havoc. Like the Conquistadors five centuries earlier, Sendero Luminoso targeted the alpacas as the means by which they would capture and retain control over rural areas and the people who lived there. In Peru, the alpaca population may have decreased by as much as 50% in some regions from 1967 to 1992.

It was against this backdrop that the governments of Bolivia, Chile, and Peru lowered their restrictions against exporting alpacas, both as a means by which to provide a source of income for the rural farmers, and also as something of a rescue operation to preserve the alpaca. Breeders and importers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, England, and Israel were among the first to go to South America to select a few animals for importation into their countries. No only did this present an opportunity to save the alpaca but it also presented tremendous economic possibilities for those involved with establishing new herds in other parts of the world.

The export/importation process was a very time consuming and costly process. For a variety of important reasons, not the least being the preservation of the value of the existing American herd, members of the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (ARI) voted to cease registration of the new imports after 1998. This had the effect of cutting off the importation process.

Portions have been reprinted, with permission, from The Alpaca Owners and Breeders Association. Feb. 2002