History of the Alpaca

The alpaca is a member of the camelid family, which also includes the llama, guanaco, vicuna and the camel. Fossil records tell us that the camelid family originated in North America. Some of the camelids migrated across the Bering land bridge to Asia and Africa and became what we know today as the Dromedary or Arabian (one hump) camel and the Bactrian, or Asian (two hump) camel. Other camelids migrated across the isthmus of Panama to South America and became what we know as llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicunas.

They are a modified ruminant and chew their cud similar to a cow, although they have three stomachs rather than the true ruminant, which has four. Alpacas selectively graze, eating pasture grasses and hay, a fact that makes feeding alpacas relatively inexpensive. With soft padded feet, they are gentle on pastures. Also, they have no top teeth in the front.

The camelids that remained in North America disappeared, possibly as a result of hunting or habitat alterations by the earliest human settlers. The camelids that remain in the world today share the trait of having adapted to very harsh climates.

The llama and alpaca are two of only five native New World animal species to be domesticated. The others are the turkey, guinea pig, and duck. The Moche and Quechua people of Peru were among the first to domesticate alpacas. The Incas, who unified and ruled the Andes for about 100 years, held the alpacas in especially high regard, reserving garments made from alpaca fleece for use only by royalty.

In the 1500’s, the Spanish Conquistadors conquered and subjugated the Inca Empire. They, then, tried to decimate the alpaca and replace them with their own sheep. Because the alpacas had adapted to the harsh climate and high altitude of the Andes Mountains in Bolivia, Chile, and Peru, the Spanish attempt to destroy them was not successful.

Recent DNA studies have pointed to a strong possibility that alpacas descended from their wild cousins the vicuna. The vicunas produce fiber that is the finest in the world, measuring 12 microns in diameter. Current prices for fabric made of vicuna fiber can range from $1800 to $3000 per yard. Scarves can cost up to $1500 and a man’s coat can cost up to $20,000. Attempts to domesticate vicunas have been unsuccessful.

The alpaca were originally imported into the United States and Canada in 1984 from Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. Today, alpaca breeders and farmers, using modern science and technology, are attempting to accomplish in just a few short generations what took Merino Sheep farmers 200 years to do, produce the finest fiber commercially available anywhere in the world.