Llamas and Alpacas were domesticated by the Incas in the higher Andes Mountains near Lake Titicaca around 4,000 B.C. They were able to utilise poor quality forage from elevations of 3,000-5,000 feet and still produce wool, meat, fertiliser and be beasts of burden.
The llama fibre was collected and used to weave the course fiber product “Aluascay” for the common people. The finer alpaca and vicuna fiber was reserved for the nobility. The Incas had a highly regimented state-controlled textile industry, aimed at ensuring fibre quality for consumption and trade. Records of flock sizes were kept on quipus, knotted recording devices made of alpaca cloth, and there was an emphasis on breeding for pure colours – particularly brown, black and white for sacrificial purposes. Evidence supports the theory that fibre quality was far higher before the Spanish Conquest.
In 1991, a group of archaeologists working at El Yaral in the pre-Incan Chiribaya culture found alpacas that had been sacrificed and buried. Due to the extreme dryness of the climate, the animals had been mummified and their fleece was found to be far finer and more uniform than fleeces today.
The Spanish conquest effectively brought to an end to thousands of years of selective breeding. It is estimated that 90 percent of the alpaca and llama population disappeared within one hundred years of the conquest, and 80 percent of the indigenous people. The Spanish introduced their own horses, mules, sheep and pigs – forcing the surviving camelids to the marginal habitats where only they could survive due to their evolutionary advantage.
Andean pastoralism found itself sidelined, and it wasn’t until the English entrepreneur Sir Titus Salt ‘discovered’ alpaca fibre in the 1860s that European investment was involved, the major processing mills were built in Arequipa in Peru and alpaca became established as a luxury fibre.