The Ancient Days
There is evidence that forty million years ago, the alpaca’s early ancestors inhabited the lower plains of North America and evolved into two Camelid groups – lamaloid and camel. Then, approximately 3 million years ago, these early Camelid split up into three groups. Some journeyed north through the Bearing Straits and into Asia and on into Africa. Another group left North America traveling south through Central America, hugging the coast, and settled in Chile, Peru and Bolivia. The last group stayed behind and existed for centuries. Approximately 10-12,000 years ago, the Camelid of North America disappeared. The cause of their disappearance is not known for certain. The two groups that migrated out of North America thrived and became the one and two hump camels of Africa and Asia and the Lama family of South America (llama, vicuna, guanaco and the alpaca).
Time of the Incas
Around 1400, the Incas conquered almost the entire western half of South America and carved out an empire that extended from modern-day Columbia and Ecuador to Chile in the south and Argentina in the east. They created this empire in less than 100 years and produced lasting architectural marvels and developed fiber arts to a very sophisticated level. To the Incas the alpaca had very special religious significance. They sacrificed an alpaca at sunrise, noon and sunset to appease their gods. Only royalty was allowed to wear alpaca fiber.
Devastation Under the Spaniards
In the early 1500’s, the Spanish Conquistadors arrived and began the tragic destruction of the alpaca. First, they brought with them their Spanish livestock. Those animals competed for pasturelands and damaged the fragile terrain. They also carried diseases that wiped out thousands of alpacas. The more Conquistadors arrived, the more they wanted the Incan treasures for themselves. Since alpacas provided food, clothing and fuel for the Incas, the Spaniards reasoned that they could control the Indians by depriving the Incas of their alpacas. So they slaughtered the alpacas by the millions taking alpacas almost to the brink of extinction. Peruvian historians estimate that as many as 90% of the entire world’s population of alpacas were killed and as a result about 80% of the human population in rural areas also died. Fortunately, the Quechuas, Aymaras and Incas outsmarted the Spaniards by hiding some of their alpacas. They took them to a remote region of Peru called the Altiplano, a high mountain desert that ranges from 10,000-16,000 feet above sea level.
In the mid-1800’s, an Englishman named Sir Titus Salt got a package of raw alpaca fleece. He was so impressed that he set about modifying his fiber mill to process the lanolin-free alpaca fiber. He developed a luxurious cloth that he sent to the British royal family. It became the popular cloth of British and European aristocrats, making Sir Titus a wealthy man. He re-invested his wealth in building a large alpaca-exclusive mill called “Saltaire” in England.
Modern Day Tragedies and Developments
In the 20th century, drought and alpaca killing by the Sendero Luminoso terrorists wreaked more havoc on the alpaca herds. In Peru, the population decreased by 50% from 1967-1992. So, the governments of Peru, Chile and Bolivia lowered their restrictions and allowed alpacas to be exported to help the rural farms economically and to salvage some of the animals. They were exported to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, U.S., England and Israel.
Importation and Registry
The first alpacas were imported into North America in 1984. In 1988 the Alpaca Registry (ARI) was created as a division of the International Llama Registry. Almost every alpaca born in North America is now registered to guarantee its parentage and investment value. When a baby is born, its owner sends in a blood sample to be DNA tested. Once its parentage is verified, the Alpaca Registry issues a pedigree certificate to the owner. No animal can be shown without proof of registration and most breeders will only purchase registered alpacas. In 1998, ARI closed the registry for imported alpacas in order to preserve the value of the existing American herd.