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Located in the mountains of Ashland, Oregon  
Mulberry Alpacas Wednesday, 5 November, 2008  

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 garments.

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.