A question that can be answered in many ways
There is much written about alpaca – their history, mythology, fibre and their future in the global fibre industry. Intertwined are the traditional peoples of South America, their history, culture, their textile traditions of the past, present and into the future.
Alpaca has sustained the traditional peoples of South America for centuries. Currently, there are about 3.5 million alpaca in the Andean highlands. 75% of the worlds’ alpacas are located in Peru and are still tended by the traditional people in a magnificent but very inhospitable Andean landscape. Alpaca are of primary importance to the Andean people.
Alpaca, survival through the ages, a preservation of textile traditions
No script is known for ancient South America and what we do know derives from oral tradition amongst the traditional peoples. In the absence of records, oral tradition was recorded by the Spanish and Indian chroniclers. Post Spanish conquest, archaeological excavation and interpretation provided an insight into life and culture of these peoples and their lifestyles.
The evolutionary history of South American camelids (llamas, alpacas, vicuñas and guanacos) starts some 45 million years ago in North America. Approximately three million years ago, a North American camelid similar to the llama migrated to South America. However, little is known, about its evolution since the fossil record is fragmentary
The domestication of the llama and alpaca is considered to have begun about 6-7000 years ago as evidenced from Andean archaeological sites at high elevation in central Peru. Almost all the pre-Inca cultures used the camelids for the provision of food and clothing. During the Inca period, greater importance was accorded to raising camelids. Archaeological evidence indicates the Inca culture developed and maintained systematic camelid breeding programs, including selecting and separating herds of alpacas according to their colours and fleece characteristics.
The discovery of 900-1000 year old mummified llamas and alpacas at a number of archaeological sites has allowed us a window into life at that time. Analysis of skin and fibre has revealed that there were probably two separate breeds of llama and alpaca with a fine and uniform fleece.
With llama, the fine breed is now extinct, whilst the coarser breed is similar to contemporary llama. Among the alpaca, the fleece was fine and extra fine with a great degree of uniformity, indicating breeding selection for uniformity and an animal with a single coat (reduction in the size difference between primary and secondary fibres.) Textile fragments and fibres from small ritually mummified camelid dating back to 1400AD indicate very fine fibre of 12-13 micron with a minimal variation of fibre.
FIBRE OF THE GOD’S –THE IMPORTANCE TO THE INCAS
The development of weaving (pre-Hispanic) reflected the development of sedentary life, agriculture, herding and with this came an increase in the complexity of civilisation. Weaving was integral to life, not only supplying clothing and household textiles but it was a way of communicating the stories and legends from generation to generation. By 400BC on the west coast of South America the traditional people had advanced their textiles to such a degree that all types of textile weaving techniques currently in use today had been invented. Weaving flourished and continued to develop. By the 3rd century AD onwards cloth of natural fibre was one of the most important materials produced by the state. By the time of the first empires, 120 colour hues were produced from 3 main dyes indigo, brown –yellow plant dye and cochineal.
Cloth of natural alpaca fibre was used as currency, sacrifices to the gods, gifts, payment, citizen identification, bridal wealth, burial shrouds, emblems of rank, nobility and prestige. Wall and floor furnishings, roofing, rope, rope bridges etc were made from llama fibre. Royal cloth was woven from alpaca fibre and the prized vicuna fibre.
Cloth was traded from the coast to the Andes. Early Spanish chroniclers describe vast stone warehouses stacked with bolts of fine cloth. There are records of large shipments of fine textiles sent to Spain.
The Spanish Conquistadors driven by lust for gold and precious metals were lured south by stories of the Incas and their wealth— the wealth they found was one of cloth and a highly ordered society. They resorted to the desecration of the temples and palaces in search of gold and silver and the slaughter of the indigenous peoples and their camelids to clear the land for their horses, sheep and cattle. The combination of this and the introduction of disease resulted in an 80% loss of human population leading to social and economic disintegration of the native societies. Native llama and alpaca herds virtually disappeared post Spanish conquest.
The loss of oral information about breeds and breeding within the first century was catastrophic for the alpaca breed. The alpaca and their herders were driven to the harsh altiplano where no other livestock could survive. The coarsening and increase in hairiness of the alpaca coat is thought to be the results of hybridisation of the alpaca and llama during the chaos and destruction of the Spanish conquest.
SURVIVAL AND FORESIGHT
Despite the drastic deterioration of the quality of alpaca and their fibre, there was a domestic demand and an awakening to the potential of the fibre in Europe. The determination of the traditional herders to hold on to their alpaca, coupled with the alpacas’ unique ability to survive and reproduce in the harshest of environments ensured the survival of the breed over the next 3 centuries.
During the 18th and 19th centuries Peru had the monopoly of supply of alpaca fibre. In the 1850s, Victorian England’s wool milling was at its height and alpaca fibre was once again worn by nobility and became a symbol of wealth. Surprisingly, although the yarn was praised for its softness and silky handle the fibre came from this two-coated animal. The processing of this fibre was difficult. In 1950, with great foresight, Don Julio Barreda, a Peruvian alpaca breeder, embarked on a breeding initiative to remedy the breeding neglect of the last 300 years.
A decade later alpaca cooperatives had enabled traditional people to embark on breeding programmes to improve alpaca fleece. Within 30 years the average fibre yield of a superior alpaca had doubled, colour patterns were being bred out and the fineness, uniformity of fleece and length had improved
TURMOIL FOLLOWED BY A FUTURE
In the 1980s and 1990s with the upheaval of the years of terror and the shining path, the alpaca industry was again thrown to the wind and the large genetically improved herds totally disbanded or slaughtered. Once again the resilience of the alpaca and their importance to their traditional herders was called upon. Following the end of the years of terror, the re-establishment of alpaca herds was contributed to by the deep connection the traditional Andean people have with their camelids and assistance from their government and European joint ventures
With the development of a successful natural fibre industry alpaca textiles are now being exhibited to the world in their traditional and modern form.
The alpaca fibre industry is expanding on many levels around the world. From ancient techniques of textile production to a commercial industry of international standing, showcasing alpaca at the Haute couture level.
Industry leaders in Peru have established alpaca breeding and fleece improvement programmes with inclusivity of the Andean alpaca herder. Yet, for the most part animal husbandry practices, fibre collection and sorting rely on the traditions passed down from Incan times and alpaca are raised in a magnificent yet harsh landscape.
The alpaca remains pivotal for thousands of families in the high Andes providing not only their primary source of income but their history and traditions.