ALPACA INFO - HISTORY

PREHISTORIC CAMELIDS

Alpacas and llamas are members of the camelid family of mammals. The paleontogical record indicates that camelids first appeared on the North American continent during the Eocene epoch, which ended approximately 33 million years ago.

The fossil record indicates that there were once over 20 different species of camelids ranging in height from 3 feet ot over 13 feet. Today only 6 species remain - alpacas, llamas, guanaco and vicuna in the New World, and Bactrian and Dromedary camels in the Old World.

Theorists speculate that camelids migrated from North America to the Old World via the Bering land bridge, and to South America over the Panamanian isthmus prior to becoming extinct in North America.

Today the herds of alpacas in North America are a sign that camelids are returning to their original home.


MODERN SOUTH AMERICAN CAMELIDS

Domestication of alpacas and the other South American camelids began about 6000 years ago in the Central Andes. The process culminated with shepherding and the appearance of diverse breeds towards 3500 BC. All, or almost all the pre-Inca Cultures, used camelids for their nourishment and clothing.

The Inca culture developed and maintained systematic camelid breeding programs, including selecting and separating flocks of alpacas according to their colors and characteristics. Archeological evidence suggests that alpacas were worshiped in Inca society, and native legends identified the alpaca as a gift from Pachmana, the Earth Mother - a gift loaned to humans for only as long as they were properly cared for.

There are two species of domesticated Andean camelids, the alpaca and the llama, and two other, non-domesticated ones, the vicuna and the guanaco. (There are "old world" camelids that we commonly know as camels - the C. Dromedarius and the C. Bactrianus, the familiar 1 and 2 hump camels that we see in zoos.

The llama is the most common and also the strongest of the Andean camelids. It has a slender shape, and my be found in up to 50 different colors. The llama has elongated legs, neck and face, and may reach as high as 6’ 2” from the ground to its head. Its long ears are erect and curve inward in a classic banana shape. As a pack animal, the llama can carry a weight of about 90 lbs. for long journeys, and up to 130 lbs. on short ones. The llamas average weight as an adult ranges from 254-400 lbs.

The alpaca (paqocha in the Quechua language) has a smaller and more curved silhouette than the llama, and has a classic fiber cowlick on its front. Alpacas come in over twenty recognized colors. The alpaca reaches a height of 4’11" and weighs about 150 lbs. A newborn alpaca, known as a cria, weighs about 15 lbs.

Alpacas generally have more fiber than llamas, producing anywhere from 3.75 - 11 lbs. per year. Alpaca fiber averages 25 microns in diameter, but the fineness of its fleece is directly related to the age of the alpaca. The finest alpaca fiber comes from the first shearing and is know as “baby alpaca”.

The alpaca presents two recognized breeds. The Huacaya alpaca as a dense, spongy fleece covering almost all its body. The Suri alpaca possesses lanky, silky and long fiber that hangs in curly locks from its sides, and may reach a length of 6 inches. Alpacas are traditionally sheared every year.

The vicuna, the wild ancestor of the alpaca, is the smallest of the Andean camelids, reaching a height of 4’ 3”. It possesses a thin and slender body with agile movement. Light brown on the back, the vicuna’s inner legs, belly and chest are whitish in color.

The guanaco, the wild ancestor to the llaman, has a similar silhouette to that of a modern counterpart, with a light brown-reddish dense and short fur, and with blackish tones on the head and whitish zones around the lips, the ears' edges and inside the legs. Economically it does not have so much importance and lives in a complete wild state.


VICUNA FACTS

Alpacas ancestors are the wild vicuna. Vicunas are the spirit and the life blood of the camelid families living in the high Andes. Unfortunately, due to their very valuable fleece vicunas were nearly hunted to extinction by the late l970s. Conservation efforts in Peru, Chile and Argentina have led to a phenomenal resurgence in vicuna populations. Once again, due to careful management, vicunas can be found in healthy numbers in the Andes.

Vicunas (Vicugna vicugna) are members of the Camelidae family, of which there are three other living members in South America: the wild guanaco (Lama guanacoe), the domestic llama (Lama glama), and the alpaca (Lama pacos).

The smallest of all camels, the vicuna weighs about 90 pounds and stands just under three feet at the shoulder. Like all South American camel species, the vicuna has a long, supple neck; slender legs; padded, cloven feet; large round eyes; and a dense and fine tawny coat.

The vicuna is a hardy survivor adapted to high altitudes, where drought and freezing nights are the rule. It is a natural pacer and well designed to travel fast for great distances. Keen eyesight allows early detection for flights to safety.

The vicuna is the probable wild progenitor of the domestic alpaca, which was created by selective breeding about 6000 years ago. Entirely wild, vicunas live in small family groups led by a single territorial male that vigilantly repels rival males and small predators threatening the young. After 11 months of gestation, vicuna mothers give birth to one baby, known as a cria.

Vicuna weigh about 11 lbs. when born, and about 88 lbs. as adults. Vicuna fiber is the finest among all the animal fibers with an average diameter of 12.5 micron, but it is short, hardly reaching 1.25". Its annual fleece can reach a maximum weight of 11 oz.

The vicuna, producing such a fine fiber, was coveted and hunted to near extinction. Today the Peruvian government officially protects this species in special National Parks. In reality, damage to this species continues as poachers slowly decimate the remaining wild herds. The world wide population of vicuna does not exceed 170,000, of which some 100,000 are found in Peru in regions that are over 3800 meters (12,500 ft.) altitude.

Vicunas are highly communicative, signaling one another with body postures, ear and tail placement, and numerous other subtle movements. Their vocalizations include an alarm call -- a high pitched whinny -- that alerts the herd to danger. They also emit a soft humming sound to signal bonding or greeting and a range of guttural sounds that communicate anger and fear. "Orgling" is probably their most unique noise. This male-only, melodic mating sound attracts unbred females.


ANCIENT HISTORY

When the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in Peru, they found a civilization that was based on textiles. The Inca people lived in a society that was literally "woven together" by the fibers supplied by alpacas, llamas and cotton. Inca weavers made everything from bridges to roofs from fibers, and they recorded their wealth in patterns of knots.

Among the Andean people cloth was currency, and the fleece of the alpaca was one of the most prized. The loyalty of nobles was rewarded with cloth made of alpaca. They gave away stacks of alpaca textiles to assuage the guilt of defeated lords. Their armies were paid with alpaca textiles.

In this society, cloth making was a major enterprise of the State. In fact, the warehouses filled with alpaca textiles were considered so precious that Inca armies deliberately burned them when retreating from battle.

However, the Spaniards did not recognize the true treasure of these peoples, being blinded by the abundant gold, silver and precious stones.

In the effort to conquer and subjugate the native people, there ensued a wholesale slaughter of alpacas and llamas. By some accounts as much as 90% of the alpacas in South America were slaughtered and left to rot in the fields. The carefully tended alpaca herds, divided by color and quality, were killed or dispersed. Only a small remnant of these wonderful animals were saved by the native population when they were secreted off to the barren and remote altiplano.

Alpacas faded into the obscurity after the Spanish invasion of South America.


REKINDLING OF A SPECIES

After the Spanish conquest, alpacas were nearly wiped out. By some accounts, 90% of the alpaca herds were destroyed in an effort to subjugate the native peoples. In the 19th Century alpacas were rediscovered by Europeans and played an important role during the Industrial Revolution, and in fact were central to moderating some of its excesses. Sir Titus Salt discovered the unique aspects of alpaca fiber and went on to earn a fortune and establish a town dedicated to its processing (Saltaire, in Bradfordshire, England).

In 1853 there was an unsuccessful attempt to export alpacas to Australia. Thomas Holt, who decided to import alpacas, llamas and vicunas, commissioned Charles Ledger, a Peruvian merchant to look for suitable animals.

Known simply as Alpaca, many references can be found in popular literature of the 19th and early 20th Century. While few may have been aware of the animals, fabric and finished goods were well known and viewed as a luxurious and valuable commodity. Alpaca maintained its lustre until the development of synthetic fibers in the mid 20th Century began to supplant natural fibers, at which point both alpacas and their fiber once again largely faded from the public's awareness.


MODERN HISTORY

Info soon to come.