items -     View Cart
Highland Airs Alpaca Ranch - Logo

The History of Alpacas

Alpacas Through The Years

A Brief History...


         The history of alpacas begins over 6000 years ago in South America. It is in the Puna Highlands of Peru where alpacas were first thought to have been bred and indeed, the Andes Mountain range in Peru is commonly known as their defacto home. Herders from all those thousand of years ago began a process of domesticating the wild vicuna whom at the time were commonly hunted for both their meat and their fiber. It was through 'selective breeding' of this animal that alpacas were in essence, created. Through modern day genetic research, alpacas have indeed been found to be the descendants of their smaller vicuna ancestors, sharing similarities in their fiber and more telling, dentition. In addition, excavations have unearthed the remains of alpacas from over a century ago and have proven the theory that herders did indeed have a purpose to their selective breeding, which was to produce the finest fleece -  the very same purpose that we have as breeders to this very day. During these excavations mummified alpacas have been found buried under the floors of houses as offerings to gods and fortunately, due to the dry environment, these remains have remained in an exquisite state of preservation allowing scientists to study what they call, 'pre-conquest' alpacas. It is believed that 5500 years ago, with this selective breeding only decades young, a prevalent economy based around the herding of both llamas and alpacas developed and was then established at Telarmachay (a prominent site in the history of South America found in the Central Andes of Peru). Between 900-1350, the time when the Chiribaya Culture was thriving in the Andes region,evidence has pointed towards alpacas being part of an important sacrificial rite of that time in such cultural sites as El Yaral.

         With the fading of the Chiribaya culture came the rise of the Inca Empire (roughly 1438-1533). It was during this time that the alpaca reached new heights of importance in South America. The government at that time believed the survival and proper breeding of alpacas of imperative importance to the well being of their people, so much so that they kept a tight control over what became a thriving industry. Alpacas were used among other things for food, clothing, transportation of goods, and in religious ceremonies. Alpaca fiber during this time is now considered to have been of the highest quality yet attained - a quality that we still to this day cannot achieve in our own international breeding programs (achieved then was a consistent diameter of the fiber around 20 microns). The importance and quality of alpaca fiber at this time is evidenced by only Incan Royalty being allowed to wear it. In addition, armies were paid in alpaca textiles and punishment was handed down to lords at odds with the government in the form of their alpaca textiles being given away. The Andean people of that time used cloth as currency, and considered to be that of the highest value was alpaca fiber. Due to the importance of alpacas during these centuries, alpacas thrived and it is believed that close to 50 million were alive at one time. This unfortunately was all due to change and rather drastically so.

             An Incan Emperor, his army, and his alpacas and llamas.

        In 1532 the Spanish invaded South America (the Spanish Conquest) and took to immediately dismantling and destroying the Incan civilization. Part of their plan to subjugate the people was to slaughter that which the Inca culture held so dear - their alpacas. The herds that they had spent a century tending to, organizing them by the quality of their fiber and colors, were killed en masse. The slaughter of these beautiful creatures was said to be responsible in the death of nearly 90% of the entire population of alpacas at that time. The Spanish had no interest in alpacas, unable to recognize the high quality of their fiber, and instead favored the wool of sheep.The alpacas that survived fled to the Altiplano (Andean Plateau) and with the help of the Quetcha people, the small number that escaped were kept safe from the swords of the Spanish.

                          Spanish Conquest of the Incan Empire

         The history of alpacas laid dormant for three centuries after the Spanish Conquest with little other than the task of survival left to their concern. However, this all changed in the 1800's with the birth of the Industrial Revolution (1760 - 1840) and the subsequent booming textile industry and of course, with the help of one man. Sir Titus Salt was an English mill owner at the the tail end of the Industrial Revolution who would go on to become synonymous with the popularization of alpaca fiber in not only England but in continental Europe as well. In 1836, Sir Titus Salt was visiting a warehouse in Liverpool when he stumbled upon some bales of alpaca fiber. Immediately noticing the quality of the fiber, he bought all that there was from the warehouse and began manufacturing clothing items made from this wonderful and at the time, rare fiber. Salt designed his mills around the particular processing procedures needed to correctly deal with alpaca fiber and in essence, had a monopoly on the market do to this. Although he was not the first in England to work with alpaca fiber, Sir Titus Salt was the one that brought it to prominence and essentially created the upscale market of alpaca goods that still exists today. Due to Sir Titus Salt, alpaca fiber was again being worn again by royalty but this time, the English instead of Incan royalty. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert even owned two alpacas! With the reputation of its high quality spreading, alpaca fiber soon made its way into the fashion houses of continental Europe and became popular to the point that is was being mentioned in important literature such as Charles Darwin's, 'Household Words' and in his writings on evolution. Needless to say, Sir Titus Salt made a fortune with his alpaca fiber mills to the point that he actually built a town dedicated to the processing of the fiber - Saltaire (in Bradforshire, England).

                                       Sir Titus Salt

       Although the alpaca fiber boom slowed in the mid-20th century due to the discovery of synthetic fibers, the greater threat to the growth of the alpaca industry came from the South American countries rich in alpacas (Peru, Chile, and Bolivia) lacking a process and procedures to export one of their 'national treasures' to other parts of their world. During the 1980s this all changed as finally these South American countries came to agreements with the US, UK, Canada, Australia and Israel to allow the import of alpacas to these countries. From 1984 - 1998, the US saw a large amount of alpacas imported mainly from Peru. These alpacas (and all subsequent alpacas since) were all issued an ARI (Alpaca Registry, Inc.) certificate that is an invaluable document that traces an alpacas lineage in great detail (birth dates, fiber color, etc.). All alpacas are blood typed - with their DNA being used to verify the information on their ARI certificate. This attention to detail helps preserve the quality of the alpacas in the US and helps breeders focus on producing the highest quality alpaca fiber anywhere in the world. In 1998 the US government brought about the end of the importation of alpacas into the US to help preserve the quality of the alpacas already there. In the UK the first import of alpacas from Chile wasn't until 1995. In 1998 the first Peruvian alpacas entered into the UK and the alpaca population went from only 150 in 1989 to currently, over 25,000! 

If you wish to know more about alpacas in general then click on our Alapca FAQ's tab at the top of the page. 

Updated April 13, 2015