11 Million years ago the earliest ancestors of the Camels existed in the continent now known as North America. About 3 million years ago some of these migrated into South America, developing into guanacos, vicunas and other species now extinct, one of which stood 3 metres at the shoulder. Other camels migrated over the land bridge which then existed to Asia and eventually became the Old World Camels, the Bactrians and Dromedaries that we know today.
About fifteen thousand years ago man first arrived in South America. Until about seven thousand years ago he lived a hunter-gatherer existence, when he would hunt the wild deer, guanacos and vicuñas to provide meat and skins, and bones to use as tools. Then, between seven and six thousand years ago man decided to herd the guanacos and vicuñas. By about 6,000 years ago the alpaca emerged from domestication of the vicuna. From this time onward the wonderful colour range of the alpaca was able to develop. In the wild, natural selection would be biassed toward the natural camouflage vicuña colouring, no longer necessary in captivity. The alpaca also developed its continuously growing fleece as a result of domestication.
Successive cultures of peoples in S. America bred the alpaca, and they were farmed in the high Andes at 4,000 metres altitude, right down to the coastal regions. 1,000-year-old mummified remains of alpacas and llamas show evidence of selective breeding for fine fibre in both species, with the fibre of one of the alpacas giving a micron count of 17.9, with only 1.1% deviation over the entire fleece. These mummified llamas and alpacas were discovered near Moquegua in Southern Peru, at a height of 1000 metres. They were buried in the floors of the houses as offerings to the gods, and their wonderful state of preservation in the earth was due to the completely rain-free climate, giving us a unique opportunity to study pre-conquest animals.
Jane Wheeler with Mummy
Following the Spanish Conquest of Peru 90% of indiginous humans and animals died. However, the Peruvians have been rebuilding their alpaca breeding programmes again, especially during the past century, to satisfy the world demand for the luxury fibre the alpaca produces.
Alpaca fibre was prized by the Incas, whose descendents in South America still spin the fibre as their ancestors did, using a drop spindle, and then dye the yarn and knit or weave it into the most intricate patterns.
Peru’s alpaca population numbers 3 million, with a further 300,000 in Bolivia, and only 30,000 in Chile.
Today, in many parts of the world, alpaca breeders are striving to improve fibre quality in their alpacas, just as the ancient Peruvian peoples have done for millennia.
As the culmination of 30 years work, Dr Jane Wheeler proved the Alpacas to be the domesticated Vicuña, and the llama to be the domesticated guanaco. You can read a paper by Miranda Kadwell which explains some of the DNA work.
The Gene Team
This excellent half-hour Radio programme on the latest work by Dr Jane Wheeler and Dr Mike Bruford, into their search for the pure-bred alpaca, and how they plan to help the hard-pressed Andean herders.
Check out the BBC website for the programme at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/science/geneteam.shtml