Alpacas were domesticated thousands of years ago by Native American peoples in the Andean mountains of South America. The process was a slow and gradual one, as the native peoples from the region shifted from a reliance on hunting to a herding existence. Previously hunted wild guanacos and vicunas were corralled by the early hunter – gatherers in the Andes and over a period of thousands of years they were transformed into two new animals that were designed to fulfill entirely different functions. The five-foot tall, 300 lb llama emerged as a coarse haired beast of burden while the four foot tall, 150 lb alpaca was specially bred in order to provide a rich lustrous fibre.
With selective breeding the process of domestication was completed between 2500 and 1750 BC producing the fully domesticated alpaca, making the alpaca one of the earliest domesticated animals in the world with archaeological evidence of human management dating back over 7000 years.
These early Andean cultures recognised not only the value of the alpaca fibre but also the capability of the alpaca to produce fleece in a wide spectrum of colours. Whereas the fleece of the wild guanacos and vicunas in the high Andes all has the same colouring with very slight variations the alpacas produce a wide variety of shades from matte cream to shiny black. For thousands of year's alpaca fibre production was under the full control of the native Andean cultures. With careful colour separation and selective breeding they developed vast colourful herds growing fine luxurious fibre. The fibre was so prized and valuable that many of these societies strictly reserved the use of alpaca cloth for royalty, priests and high-ranking leaders. The use of alpaca by Andean ethnic groups continued in much the same way until the rise of the Inca empire in the mid 1400's.
The rise of the Inca Empire was meteoric and its fall was equally as spectacular. Beginning as a minor ethnic group they began a series of military campaigns that quickly brought most of the Andean region, from present Colombia in the North, to Chile and Argentina in the south – a distance of over 3000 miles - under their control. Although they ruled for less than 90 years they were very successful in consolidating and instituting a uniform culture over the greatest empire the Americas has seen. Having conquered the Andean cultures they acquired huge herds of alpacas and the Incas sent "seed-herds" to nearly all parts of the empire and commanded that these herds be reproduced. Prized animals of the Incas, the alpaca had a special place in Inca society. <br><br>They were an integral part of religious, social and commercial life. With such a vast supply of fibre producing animals weaving factories were set up and vast quantities of cloth were continually produced. This woven alpaca cloth played an enormous role in the administration of the Inca Empire.<br><br> Highly valued throughout the Andes rich gifts of cloth were given to high ranking nobles, given as symbolic gifts at coming of age, marriage and funeral ceremonies. They were also used in sacrifices to the deities and nature spirits of the Inca culture and were even given to defeated provinces, nobles and governors as the Empire expanded to cement the loyalty of the defeated regions.<br><br> All this as well as providing virtually all of the clothing materials for the empires estimated 7 million inhabitants."In times past, before the Spaniards won this realm, all over this land and countryside there were large numbers of local sheep (alpacas).....but the speed at which the Spanish killed them, so few remain that there are almost none"....Spaniard Pedro de Cieza de Leon
It wasn't until the Spanish conquest of the Incas in 1532 that hunting and new disease eliminated the majority of South American camelids. Some researchers claim that as much as 90% of the world's alpaca population was slaughtered in the 1500's by the Spanish. Estimates of pre – Conquest population of alpacas runs from tens of millions to 50 million.