If you’re like us and you’ve taken a liking to alpacas, you may have wondered which blessed part of the world graced us with these wonderful, fuzzy creatures in the first place. The short answer is: South America. Specifically, Peru.
Alpacas were domesticated thousands of years ago by the Moche people of Northern Peru (or, at least, that’s what their ancient artwork tells us). Alpacas were also an important staple of Incan culture, and were used for everything from clothing to transportation to food. In fact, they were so important to the Inca that the alpaca industry was tightly regulated by the royalty of the time. Since alpaca fiber and the clothes made from it are so soft, warm, and cozy, we can’t say we blame them.
Alpacas are part of the camelid family, which includes similar species like llamas and guanacos as well as dromedary and bactrian camels. They are originally descended from the equally cute vicuna, which has been running wild in the Andes for over 12,000 years.
A mama vicuna and her incredibly cute baby
Vicunas are comfortable at elevations up to 16,000 feet above sea level (which comes in handy when you live in the Andes.) To this day, there are still plenty of domesticated alpaca herds that share space with their wild cousins, which just shows how hardy they really are.
The Andes, where alpacas originated. As you can see, these mountains are serious business.
As we previously mentioned, alpacas were fiercely protected by the Moche, Inca, and all the other native peoples who relied on them for food and clothing. Alpaca bloodlines in particular were kept pure, which was important given that they’re able to successfully interbreed with vicunas, llamas, and guanacos (the wild cousin of today’s llamas.) While all of these crossbred babies are really cute, their fiber isn’t nearly as good as the fiber from a genetically pure alpaca.
Unfortunately, when the Spanish conquest devastated many ancient South American civilizations, it also wreaked havoc on alpaca genetics (which, at that point, was probably the least of everyone’s worries…) Without supervision, they roamed and bred as they would. The resulting “vicuna’s your uncle, guanaco’s your aunt, llama’s your mama” chaos that ensued had a negative effect on the quality of alpaca fiber across the board. Because let’s face it, llamas and guanacos just aren’t nearly as soft and cuddly – and neither were their hybrid offspring.
Luckily, all four camelid species came through the Spanish conquest and, with a little help, are doing just great today. Alpacas in particular are beloved around the world – from the deserts of Arizona to the jungles of Thailand. With their innate toughness, easygoing nature, and unbelievable cuteness, they’ll probably continue to steal hearts around the world for thousands of years to come.