History of the alpaca industry

 
Peruvian children
Peruvian children in traditional dress. Photo: Jacek
Kadaj

Information gleaned from the mummified remains of ritually sacrificed alpacas and humans in the high Andes indicate that by the time of the European conquest of Peru, the alpaca produced some of the finest fibre and textiles ever known to man.

When the Spanish invaded Peru in 1532, there were 10 million indigenous people living in the Andes. Fifty years later there were one million. The Spanish Conquistadors did not understand the alpaca and after eating what they needed, they pushed it higher into the Andes and moved their cattle and sheep onto the grazing land.

This, coupled with the displacement and loss of so many people to work the mountains, quickly destroyed the sophisticated breeding programmes of the Inca. The alpaca herds were decimated in numbers and quality in favour of sheep and for the next 450 years, the alpaca became a subsistence livestock for the indigenous peoples of the Andes.

Exporting alpacas

In around 1945 English spinning mills were established in Arequipa and began working closely with the fibre coming down from the Andes. The Peruvian government started to encourage programmes to get the alpaca back to its pre-Conquest quality. Progress was impeded until quite recently by successive and continuous political upheaval in Peru. The exports of alpacas from South America to the USA and Australia began in around 1990.

Exports to the UK began in around 1996 when some large shipments were imported from Chile. Subsequent shipments were exported from Peru and nowadays small select shipments of alpaca genetics are imported from several sources around the globe.

There are currently thought to be about three million alpacas in South America and they are also being successfully bred in North America, Australia, Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, China, as well as Norway, Sweden, Denmark and all the European countries. At the British Alpaca Society World Alpaca Conference in 2012 there were 17 alpaca breeding countries, in addition to the representatives from South America.