The Incas' other gold: the fiber obtained in the area between the Andean mountain range and Peru
Origins and Development
There is not much information on the origins of Alpaca which often gets mixed up with superstitions or legends.
In Peru, in the Colca Canyon, there are the Mollepunko Caves, where you can see the rock carvings dating back to more than 6,000 years ago depicting the domestication of the Alpacas. One may deduce, therefore, that Alpacas were probably the first livestock in the world to be domesticated.
Alpacas were also bred as pets by the Incas, who called the animals “the gold of the Andes” and considered their fiber “the wool of the gods”.
Around 1532, the Spanish Conquistadores pushed the indigenous people (Indios) and their flocks of alpacas and llamas towards impervious and higher altitude territories, leaving the best pastures available to the cattle and sheep imported from Europe. Soon after, the Alpacas got accustomed to the altitude and oxygen rarefaction, enduring the cold temperatures of the night and the heat of the day, and settled in where the sheep could not survive.
After the destruction of the Inca Empire, the ancient breeding traditions of Alpacas were lost. Crossbreeding became spontaneous, no longer controlled and selective, and the quality of the fiber gradually deteriorated.
In the second half of the 19th century, Sir Titus Salt rediscovered this fiber, finding bales of Alpaca wool in a warehouse in Liverpool and he created a luxury fabric that he called “the Incas’ other gold”. Once presented to the royal family, it quickly became a huge success.
In 1945, in Arequipa, now known as “The Alpaca center” of Peru, production plants were opened by the British, introducing Alpaca as a luxury wool on the market. In the following years, the Peruvian government gradually took steps to encourage programs which would improve alpaca farming and restore the industry, but in 1969 a military coup changed everything. The lands were confiscated and returned to farmers who did not have the necessary knowledge to manage large flocks. This, together with the drought and the activities of the Communist terrorist group Sendero Luminoso, resulted in the population of Alpacas dropping by 50% in 1990. In the attempt to replenish the flocks again, the governments of Peru, Chile and Bolivia agreed to lower their restrictions on export.
Alpacas were exported to the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and to the United Kingdom. Breeders from these countries had the opportunity to invest in these adorable creatures and to work on improving wool and establishing their own native herds.
ClassificationThe origin of this animal has remained uncertain for a long time, the debate remaining between a domestic origin deriving from vicuñas, or instead, deriving from guanacos. When the scientific names were assigned to the South American camelids, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Alpacas were considered a descendant of the llama, notwithstanding the strong similarities in size, height and quality of the wool obtained from vicuñas. The advent of new technologies led to the discovery in 2001, with DNA analysis, of the correct classification: Alpacas derive from vicuñas. Consequently, the scientific name for Alpaca was changed from Lama pacos to Vicugna pacos.
The Territory and the Alpaqueros (Alpaca Breeders)
The Peruvian territory is impervious. The cordillera runs through the country, forming its backbone and originating different longitudinal geographical units with remarkable geomorphological and climatic contrasts. The vertical characteristic of the Andes plays a fundamental role in understanding the type of settlement the Andean societies adopted in this area as well as the continuous sequence of human challenges they faced to adapt to the difficulties of these high and steep lands.
The High Andean shepherds, now fully integrated into that adaptation process which allowed them to survive thanks to the rational use of the resources of the Puna, based their economic system on rearing Llamas and Alpacas. The extensive knowledge of these animals, handed down through an infinite number of generations, allows the alpaqueros to exploit them in their entirety, not only by using their wool and meat, but also by establishing economic relationships with farmers, with whom exchanges are made between the products of the highlands and the agricultural products of the Puno Baja, the lower Puno.
The alpaqueros, the indigenous population dedicated to sheep farming, raise their animals in “Puna”, the high and isolated area of the Apurimac region in Peru. Far away from progress, from cities, devoid of comfort and services, but rich in the charm told by the silence and isolation of these lands, they have chosen to live a lifestyle that has been passed on for centuries.
They live in poverty, in modest houses with thatched or sheet roofs, with earth and mud walls, lack of running water and sanitary facilities, a condition that translates into high mortality rates. Alpaca breeding is of great importance to the Andean community because 35,000 families depend directly on this activity in the Andean areas. The last twenty years have seen many changes within the communities of shepherds and in their social organization. While preserving the ancient traditions, they have gradually entered the international market system, as the starting point in the so-called “Fiber Circuit”.
Animals and Collection
South American CamelidsThe South American camelids, which differ from the Afro-Asian ones, are known by the name of Auchenids, from the Greek Auchenios – Cervice, for the large growth of the cervical region that characterizes the bearing of these animals which include Alpacas (Vicugna pacos), Llamas (Lhama glama), Vicunas (Vicugna vicugna) and Guanacos (Llama huanachus). Alpacas and Llamas are domestic pets and have lived with man since ancient times. The Vicuna and the Guanaco, instead, live free and in the wild and can sometimes be dangerous. The Andean camelids, ruminant animals that feed on the spontaneous, hard steppe vegetation of the highlands, have adapted well to the high altitudes and oxygen rarefaction. Alpacas are divided into two sub-breeds. The Huacayo, the most common sub-breed, is skinny and slender in structure and has a visibly long neck. It has a thick wavy coat that grows perpendicular to its skin which gives the animal a round appearance. The Suri, smaller in size, has a silkier and shinier coat and its hair falls along its body, giving it a slimmer appearance than the Alpaca. Besides these two species, there is also the Alpama, a variety that derives from the cross-breeding of a male Llama with a female Alpaca.
ProductionAlpacas are easy to breed thanks to their docile and meek character. The specimens that are too small to be ridden and not suitable for carrying loads are raised mainly for their wool and meat. The longevity of these animals is remarkable and can reach 20 years, but the reproduction of this species is quite low. From shearing, which takes place from September to November, a female alpaca produces about 2 to 3.5 kg of fiber while a male Alpaca produces about 3.5 to 4 kg. The wool of baby Alpacas, called “crias”, is definitely the most valuable, light and bright. The coat of the animal can come in as many as 22 different natural colors. For the shearing, alpacas are stretched over a mat, immobilized with ropes and shorn with a very precise and, for the animal, less dangerous electric razor compared to the old traditional tools. Cutting the fur allows to neatly collect the fiber and make a first important selection of the parts of the fleece, which is useful for the subsequent processing phases. In Peru, the largest production of Alpaca fiber in the farms that raise them, managed by the Alpaqueros, takes place on the Andean Cordillera, in the departments of Puno, Cuzco, Arequipa, Huancavelica and Apurimac. In Bolivia instead the most important areas are Pecajes, Carangas and Omasuyos. Global Peruvian fiber production is divided into:
- 20% Baby Alpaca, 21-22 microns (from which, with a further selection, the Royal is made which represents 1-2%)
- 40% Superfine, 25-27 microns
- 40% Adult, 30-33 microns