The Alpaca Hacienda
Alpacas are a domesticated member of the camel (camelid) family. The camelid family also includes llamas, guanacos, and vicunas from South America, and the Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Asia and Africa. This family of animals originated on the plains of North America about 10 million years ago. A common ancestor to the South American camelids migrated to South America about 2.5 million years ago. Two wild species, vicunas and guanacos, emerged. They still live in the Andes. It is believed that about 6,000 years ago alpacas were created through selective breeding which was heavily influenced by the vicuna. There are similarities in size, fiber, and dentition (teeth) between the alpaca and the wild vicuna.
The Incas, a highly sophisticated civilization of its time, are the first purveyors of these very docile creatures. They developed the fleece that at the time was some of the most prized fabric in the world.
The Incas of pre-historic South America would separate alpacas according to their color and characteristics. Archaeological evidence suggests alpacas were held in high esteem and even worshipped in Inca society. They in fact identified these creatures as a gift from “Pachmana,” or the Earth Mother. Incas viewed these animals as a gift loaned to humans provided they were well taken care of.
Alpaca fibers and other textiles in fact formed the basis of this early agrarian economy. In fact, fibers were used as a medium of exchange (like money today) in this ancient society…they were so valuable that Inca fighters set fire to warehouses containing the fiber when they retreated from battle.
Spanish Explorers Brought the Alpaca to Near Extinction
When Spanish explorers discovered South America in the early 14th century, they grossly underestimated the value of alpaca fibers due to the abundance of gold, silver and other precious metals.
In its effort to conquer the native peoples of Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile, the Spaniards endorsed and actively participated in the wholesale slaughter of these animals…as much as 90% of the alpaca herd in those days were slaughtered and left out in the fields to rot.
Fortunately, a few of the native Incas were able to stave off extinction of alpacas by hiding them in the barren and remote altiplano.
Fading into the background for two or three centuries, the alpacas once again gained prominence during the 19th century and Industrial Revolution. Fabric and finished goods like hats, scarves and other clothing were held in high esteem across Europe during this time.
But with the advent of synthetic fibers, alpacas once again faded into obscurity in the early parts of the 20th century…albeit not as violently as before. However, in recent years, interest in alpaca fiber clothing has surged, perhaps partly because alpaca ranching has a reasonably low impact on the environment, but arguably because of its exquisite characteristics of softness and warmth. Outdoor sports enthusiasts recognize that its lighter weight and better warmth provides them more comfort in colder weather, so outfitters such as R.E.I. and others are beginning to stock more alpaca products. Using an alpaca and wool blend such as merino is common to the alpaca fiber industry in order to improve processing and the qualities of the final product.
In December 2006 the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2009 to be the International Year of Alpaca Fibers, so as to raise the profile of alpaca and other natural fibers. Today, alpaca fiber continues to be prized for its special and unique characteristics by manufacturers, hand spinners and weavers all over the globe.