Alpacas, vicuñas, guanacos and llamas are essential to life for Andean peoples. These animals are used as a source of food, clothing and as a means of transportation. Their skins were more precious than gold to Incas.
Camelids, who have inhabited the Andes for more than three million years, are one of the greatest treasures of this remote mountain region. Natural, soft, warm and luxurious fibres are obtained from vicuñas, alpacas, guanacos and llamas. They are also very important for serving as sources of meat, skins and manure, which is used as fuel. Besides, these animals are used as a means of transportation by the Andean peoples and form part of countless ritual ceremonies. Camelids are therefore an integral part of the lives of many Andean peoples of Bolivia, Peru and Chile.
Vicuñas and guanacos, which run wild, are well adapted to live at an altitude of more than 4,000 meters and in very low temperatures, which has positive effects on the quality of their coat. The vicuña fibre is the most precious and it is called ‘the gold of the Andes’. Earliest evidence of vicuñas dates to 10,000 years ago.The vicuña animals were sacred to the Incas, who believed that they were the reincarnation of young maidens rewarded with a coat of pure gold in return for giving life to their civilization. Vicuña shearing is associated with an ancient ceremony of giving thanks to the Pachamama or Mother Earth and still through the ancestral technique that endures also today by which a large group of people corral the vicuñas and then shear them to use their fur for clothing. After removing their fur they release them back into the reserve. Before the roundup, Andean peoples in traditional costumes perform a dance as part of the ancient ritual, known as the ‘chaccu’.
The shearing festival marks the importance of both the preservation of the Andean worldview and the preservation of vicuñas which are in danger of extinction.
The Incas started to domesticate alpacas in 500 BC. Textile fragments made of alpaca or llama wool, which show a very refined fibre processing, have been found wrapped around mummified bodies in Inca tombs The vicuña’s extremely fine fibre, which for thousands of years has been so highly regarded by the Andean cultures, was used exclusively to clothe royalty. The Inca emperor dressed only with the most elaborate garments made of vicuña. As far as the alpaca is concerned, there are two types of this fibre: huacaya and suri. The more common huacaya have fine, dense fibre which looks corrugated up close – this is called ‘crimp’. Huacaya fiber is similar to wool in use, but it is typically softer and warmer; while suri can be similar in softness to cashmere, and is warm, lightweight and similar to silk. The ancient Inca considered the suri alpacas to be royal property. Commoners daring to wear suri fabric were sentenced to death.
Alpacas were targeted for extermination by the Spanish conquistadores during their conquest of the Inca peoples, and the suri alpaca nearly vanished. Presumably, the quality of the animal was significantly impacted by unsupervised breeding and llama cross-breeding in the generations following the destruction and assimilation of the Incan culture by the Spanish conquistadors beginning in the mid‑1500’s. Most of the herds were scattered or killed by the Spanish to make room for their domestic herds of sheep. Suris faded in memory but a few survived in the hands of small campesinos, or in towns of the Quechaun and Aymaran Indians in the remote areas of the Altiplano on the borders of Bolivia and Peru. Today there are approximately four million alpacas in Peru, the largest producer of this fibre in the world.
The main characteristics of alpaca fibre are: it is three times stronger and seven times warmer than sheep fibre; it has excellent insulating and thermal qualities, as it contains microscopic air pockets which contributes to create lightweight garments with high insulation values. It has a rich silky sheen. It contains no grease, oil or lanolin. It does not retain water and can resist solar radiation. Alpacas come in more than 22 natural colour shades. The Andean weavers use the pushka, a drop spindle, to spin alpaca wool, carrying on the technique they inherited from their ancestors.
In most cases, communities of campesinos or of farmers, who live in the icy regions in the heights of the Andes, breed camelids. The wool from camelids is particularly appreciated in China, Japan, Italy and the United Kingdom, where it is used to make coats, blankets and scarves.
Catalina S. Montoya