History suggests that over 6,000 years ago the alpacas was set as a breed through selectively breeding the guanaco and vicuna. Garments made from alpaca fiber was reserved for Incan royalty and wearing of it by other than nobility could be punished by death!
Alpacas are indigenous only along the western central part of South America, in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, with great numbers around Lake Titicaca, high in the Andes on the border of Bolivia and Peru.
When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 17th century, the Incan civilization and the alpaca were almost completely destroyed. Merino sheep, introduced by the Spanish, were given the choice lands and the alpaca was forced to escape to higher, barren altitudes. Decimated in numbers, alpacas adapted to the harsh climate and terrain of the Altiplano (high mountain desert) and developed the ability to live on scrub and brush, a true testament to Darwin’s survival of the fittest. Peruvian historians estimate that approximately 90% of the entire world’s population of alpacas died during the this tragic time.
When the Industrial Revolution transformed the textile industry in the 1700 and 1800s huge textile mills were built in England. Sir Titus Salt designed an alpaca fleece processing mill, which gave him a monopoly on alpaca! Alpaca quickly became a favorite of the British royal family, and the fashion designers of Europe. Once again, alpaca fiber took its place as a natural animal fiber fit for royalty.
In the mid-1980’s, due to a convoluted mix of political and economic circumstances in South America – including significant terrorist activity in Peru – Peru, Bolivia and Chile began negotiations to export animals to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, England, and Israel.
Large-scale alpaca importations into the USA ran from 1984 to 1998. Alpacas were flown or came by boat into quarantinne areas set up in various places. Qualified animals imported into the USA were issued a pedigree registration by the Alpaca Registry, Inc. (or “ARI”). This ARI certificate traces the lineage of each alpaca, including colors, dates of birth, etc. ARI uses DNA blood-testing to ensure accuracy. Then in 1998, the ARI pedigree registry closed to further imported animals, thus stopping any more registrable alpacas from coming into the United States and preserving the value of the animals that are in the United States.
What about alpacas still in South America, you may ask. There are still many alpaca shepherds living the pastoral life, ekeing out an existance in the barren world of the altiplan. The ancient people, turned llamas and alpacas out each morning to graze on the puna, and briught them back each evening to the rock corrals “canchones.” These ancient corrals are still used, just as they have been for centuries. This is an ancient way of life based on the only pre European livestock domestication in the Americas, and it harkens back to a time before the Europeans destroyed the ancient culture. The highland herders of today continue this lifestyle and we owe them a huge debt of geatutude for being custodians of these wonderful, gentle animals.
Photos: Top: a little shepherdess in traditional garb, and her charge pose for photographs, a gorgeous shot of a lake with two young alpaca herders and their alpaca, the red threads in the alpacas indicate their age and to whom they belong, a family begins a trek across the altiplano and an old etching of an alpaca.