Llamas and alpacas are members of the camel family, Camelidae, of which there are six living species. The ancestors of today’s camelids evolved in North America between 11 and 9 million years ago, and spread to South America three million years ago. Alpacas are descended from the wild Vicuña, whose fibre was greatly prized amongst the Incas. Unfortunately, the Spanish Conquest was responsible for destroying many alpacas and vicunas, as well as the Incan civilization, its knowledge of husbandry, and the ability to breed animals with very fine fleece and good conformation.
Despite this, alpacas have continued to be the mainstay of life in the Andes, supplying meat and fibre for textile production for its people as well as cash from the mills spinning in bulk from the larger producers.
Recognition of a new world market for alpaca fibre and breeding stock outside South America has led to an increase in the size of the native herds for export as well as for producing fibre for the local mills. The mills generally offer premium price for white and fawn fleeces, and so breeding programmes have been geared towards producing these colours of alpaca—to the detriment of the other lovely natural colours including black, brown, and grey. Some breeders, like Laurel Farm, are interested in redressing the balance in the UK herd by concentrating on the rich dark colours which occur naturally in alpacas.