Hidden in the mists of the high Andes and antiquity, a mystical and almost magical little animal has journeyed over five millennia in partnership with man. To fully appreciate this remarkable history, consider the following:
- 1000 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza was completed, the ancient ancestors of the Inca were measuring their wealth by the numbers of alpacas they owned and were enjoying the finest garments woven from the fleece of their great alpaca herds.
- 2000 years before King David united the tribes of Israel, members of pre-Incan nobility were draping themselves in multicolored robes of gossamer sheen produced from alpaca fiber as they performed the mysterious rituals of their religion and culture.
- 3000 years before the Iliad and the Odyssey were transcribed from myth to parchment, the Peruvian people were expanding a thriving economy built in part on the commercial value of their treasured alpacas. Through man’s first known use of selective breeding, they were producing alpacas whose quality of fleece was far superior to even the best contemporary alpacas.
- 500 years before Rome began to build its empire and the warring barbarian tribes were flooding into the territories of Modern Europe, the alpaca was firmly entrenched as a major cornerstone in the Incan empire which encompassed most of the western side of the South American continent.
And so it remained for another 2000 years, until the arrival in the New World of the Spanish conquistadors in the 17th century AD. As these soldiers of fortune began the orderly conquest and genocide of the Incan people, another casualty of their carnage was the little “humming sheep” so prized by their Incan enemy. The alpaca, which had been treasured for almost 4000 years as a source of highly prized fiber, was viewed only as a competitor for grazing lands allocated to the Spaniards’ sheep, and therefore most useful as a source of meat. This deliberate decimation of the great alpaca herds would have led to the eventual extinction of these magical little creatures except for one saving turn of fate. As the surviving Incans sought sanctuary in the highest reaches of their beloved Andes, they took a few of their most prized alpacas with them as they began their self-imposed exile into the mountains’ protective mists. In the centuries that followed, a much more hardy and healthy alpaca developed in the stern and demanding lands above the clouds, where survival of the fittest was an absolute and constant reality.
The curtain of history descended again on the alpaca and remained down until the mid 1800’s, when Sir Titus Salt of London “discovered” the remarkable fiber of this musical camelid and began promoting its use in the finest textile mills and fashion houses of Europe.
Even with this limited exposure to the outside world, the alpaca remained relatively unknown in the United States until 1983, when a small group of American importers began purchasing small numbers of these animals from select breeders in South America and bringing them to their farms as breeding stock.
Today, over three million alpacas exist worldwide, with 98 percent still located in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. The alpaca herd in the United States is estimated at 17,000 and is expected to increase gradually in the next two decades.
As these amiable ambassadors of antiquity amble into their sixth millennium of partnership with their human owners, we wonder what new and exciting chapters will be written in their already amazing odyssey.
We can predict the following with a high degree of certainty:
- The best-kept secret in animal husbandry is hidden no longer! Alpaca fiber will become even more prized as textile manufacturers, fashion designers, and the purchasing public become more enamored with this remarkable fleece.
- An emphasis on selective breeding in North America will produce a healthier alpaca with improved fiber and conformation. Meticulous genealogical records and tightly monitored registrations will be maintained on all alpacas in order to insure progress and control of quality in these vital areas.
- White and near-white alpacas of high quality will continue to be in great demand due to their superior genetic structure and worldwide favor.
- Colored alpacas will probably grow in popularity among North American breeders due to their intrinsic beauty and the demand for non-dyed natural fabrics by health-conscious American consumers.
- Prices paid for quality breeding stock will remain high in the next decade. Limited supply driven by increasing demand virtually assures the increasing value of each quality alpaca capable of reproducing itself.
- AOBA and the regional associations of alpaca breeders will aggressively and effectively market the benefits of owning alpacas and alpaca clothing, thus fueling a dramatic increase in the United States among those willing to invest in alpaca ownership and the appealing lifestyle it offers.
- But the most exciting milestone in the alpaca’s future will be reached when “critical mass” is achieved. This fusion of fiber, fashion, and finance will usher in a new golden age for these enduring and endearing little creatures. When this happens, the great wheel of history will have completed one full turn, for the alpaca-so prized in his small and hidden world 5000 years ago, will again enjoy the featured spotlight on the much bigger stage of worldwide awareness, acceptance, and applause.