Don Julio Barreda once told me that he believed alpaca were mana from heaven, rained down on Peru by a benevolent God. There is an old Quechua myth that tells the story of a princess, the daughter of an Apu, who lived in Lake Titicaca and was given a dowry of alpacas when she married a young boy who lived on the shores of the lake.
But there is another theory that in some ways could in be consistent with both of the hypothesis above.
In 1995, I attended the first commercial chaccu (vicuña round-up) in Peru’s contemporary history as the guest of Grupo Inca, the Peruvian textile conglomerate that had commercialized the first legally collected vicuna.
This is what I witnessed and learned.
The wild vicuña stood rigid and still, a mere three feet away. Her round ebony eyes mirrored the image of a man, her mortal enemy for more than 10,000 years. She seemed to be simultaneously contemplating escape and submission. Her cria, only a few weeks old, stood boldly at her side, while the chaccu swirled on around them.
The vicuña occupies a mystical place in the soul of Peru. It stands tall on the Peruvian Coat of Arms; its image graces the Peruvian coin. In ancient times, the indigenous peoples of the high sierra rubbed their newborns with bone marrow from the fleet vicuña, hoping their children would run fast and far. Fat from the vicuña was rubbed on expectant mothers’ bellies to bless their unborn children.
Vicuña are one of nature’s most elegant creations, with long fragile necks and oversized heads that somehow suggest an extraterrestrial intelligence. The smallest member of the camelid family, the vicuña has the largest heart, by 50 percent, of any mammal its size. Its coppery gold fleece is punctuated by long, silky white hair at its breast.
The hair of the vicuña is the world’s finest natural fiber, measuring 12 to 13 microns. Cloth woven from this fiber is the world’s most exclusive –
unprocessed vicuña fleece sells for five times more per ounce than pure silver. The fashion houses of Armani and Chanel passionately compete for this rarest of natural commodities.
Vicuña and guanacos, another wild camelid, populated the western face of South America for hundreds of thousands of years, their numbers so large they were impossible to count. Then one hapless day, human beings appeared and their numbers began a long decline. Hunters pursued the guanaco and vicuña for more than 7,000 years before eventually domesticating them. The nomadic Selk-Nam Indians of Patagonia exploited the guanaco’s natural curiosity by crawling on the ground to portray a wounded animal, then jumping up and driving a spear into the fatally attracted camelid.
The vicuña hunters of the Peru’s high-desert grassland, ancestors of today’s Quechua and Aymara Indians, often hunted the animals by running them into man-made pits. Occasionally a cria, or infant camelid, survived, and those lucky ones eventually became the domesticated foundation stock of today’s alpaca.