History of Alpacas

Alpacas are a domesticated member of the camel (camelid) family.  The camelid family also includes llamas, guanacos, and vicunas from South America, and the Bactrian and Dromedary camels from Asia and Africa.  This family of animals originated on the plains of North America about 10 million years ago.  A common ancestor to the South American camelids migrated to South America about 2.5 million years ago.  Two wild species, vicunas and guanacos, emerged.  They still live in the Andes.  It is believed that about 6,000 years ago alpacas were created through selective breeding which was heavily influenced by the vicuna.  There are similarities in size, fiber, and dentition (teeth) between the alpaca and the wild vicuna.

Today there are about 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands, most of which can be found in Peru.  Since the major first importation into the U.S. in 1984, the North American herd has increased from a few alpacas in zoos and private collections to about 20,000.  Alpacas are popular internationally for their luxury fiber and as pet, show, and investment animals in Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, Poland, France, and Israel, as well as the United States.

History of the scientific name

The relationship between alpacas and vicuñas was disputed for many years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the four South American lamoid species were assigned scientific names. At that time, the alpaca was assumed to be descended from the llama, ignoring similarities in size, fleece and dentition between the alpaca and the vicuña. Classification was complicated by the fact that all four species of South American camelid can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. The advent of DNA technology made a more accurate classification possible.

In 2001, the alpaca genus classification changed from Lama pacos to Vicugna pacos, following the presentation of a paper on work by Dr. Jane Wheeler et al. on alpaca DNA to the Royal Society showing the alpaca is descended from the vicuña, not the guanaco.

Cultural presence

Alpacas are closely tied to cultural practices for Andeans people. Prior to colonization, the image of the alpaca was used in rituals and in their religious practices. Since the people in the region depended heavily on these animals for their sustenance, the alpaca was seen as a gift from Pachamama. Alpacas were used for their meat, fibers for clothing, and art, and their images in the form of conopas.

Conopas take their appearance from the Suri alpacas, with long locks flanking their sides and bangs covering the eyes, and a depression on the back. This depression is used in ritual practices, usually filled with coca leaves and fat from alpacas and lamas, to bring fertility and luck. While their use was prevalent before colonization, the attempts to convert the Andean people to Catholicism led to the acquisition of more than 3,400 conopas in Lima alone.

The origin of alpaca is depicted in legend; the legend states they came to be in the world after a goddess fell in love with a man. The goddess’ father only allowed her to be with her lover if he cared for her herd of alpacas. On top of caring for the herd, he was to always carry a small animal for his entire life. As the goddess came into our world, the alpacas followed her. Everything was fine until the man set the small animal down, and the goddess fled back to her home. On her way back home, the man attempted to stop her and her herd from fleeing. While he was not able to stop her from returning, he was able to stop a few alpacas from returning. These alpacas who didn’t make it back are seen today in the swampy lands in the Andes waiting for the end of world, so they may return to their goddess.