The History of Alpacas
We've prepared four articles on the history of Alpacas which
are presented in this section. Use the links above to view them.
Alpacas during Incan times
When were alpacas first domesticated? It is not definitively
known, but when the Quechua speaking Incas came along, beginning
in about 1100 A.D., the alpaca was well domesticated and a major
part of the life of the Indians.
The Incas conquered virtually the entire western half of South
America, carving out an empire that extended from (modern-day)
Columbia and Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south, to Argentina
in the east. They were noted for their many archeological feats
(including such marvels as Machu Picchu) and advancements in
the fiber arts – all accomplished during a period of less
than one hundred years. The production and use of fiber involved
status, religious beliefs and strict regulations with stiff penalties.
The Incas were a regimented and organized society with a deep
appreciation for perfection, which is reflected in their world-famous
stonework and less well-known textiles (on display in museums
in Lima). The Incas held all species of South American camels
in the highest regard and regulated both the use of wild camelids
and the husbandry practices of llamas and alpacas. Their civilization
defined itself by the “silklike cloth” described
first by the conquistadors. The entire Inca civilization with
its ingenious eye for detail and organization, put its best efforts
into fine fiber and beautiful textiles. Central to this effort
was the development of the alpaca. In such an inhospitable, windy
and cold setting, one can imagine the desire to wear soft, prickle-free
For the Incas the alpaca provided food, and more importantly
fiber to make cloth. As cloth makers, the Inca Indian weavers
made fabrics that outshone the fabrics of their later European
conquerors. It is clearly recorded that the Incas wove woolen
fabric from the fleece of the alpaca. The material thus woven
was so soft that it was prized above almost everything else in
the Incan Empire, including its gold and silver.
To the Incas, status and wealth were counted in cloth, most
of it coming from the alpaca. Armies were paid in cloth. Retreating
armies burned warehouses full of cloth rather than allow a victorious
army the spoils.
The Incas bestowed special religious significance on the alpaca,
sacrificing an alpaca at sunrise, noon, and sunset to appease
their pagan gods. Primarily because of this special religious
significance, the Incas separated their alpacas from other forms
of livestock and segregated the herds by color. After several
generations, the Incas ascertained that the alpaca as a species
is capable of producing some 22 separate and distinguishable
colors. A highly regimented state-controlled textile industry
aimed at ensuring fiber quality for consumption and trade.
Records of flock sizes, including their color, sex and size
were kept on quipus (knotted recording devices made of alpaca
fiber) and used by the Incas. Apparently different kinds of fiber
were distributed either partially or entirely according to social
class. Commoners wore llama or guanaco derived clothing. High
ranking officials and nobility wore gami (alpaca cloth). In all
of human history there may have been nothing like the Incan obsession
with fine cloth. Fabric, most often alpaca fabric, was the medium
in which Incan society defined its essence.
When the Spanish Europeans invaded South America about 500 years
ago they found the alpacas. Thinking the animals were not as
good as their own sheep, the Conquistadors set out to eradicate
the animals, knowing that the Incan Civilization relied on these
animals for their livelihood. At that time, the alpacas, as a
central part of Incan society, were almost exterminated. Fortunately,
some of the Indians who dwelled in the higher elevations, saw
to it that the alpacas were moved higher into the mountains.
This strategy ultimately saved the species from extinction. It
is estimated that there were from 40-50 million alpacas in pre-colonial
South America and that number is today greatly reduced. Today
there are only about 3 million alpacas in the realm that once
belonged to the Incas.