Alpacas were domesticated in Perú some six thousand years ago. They belong to the family of South American camelids, together with the llama, also domesticated, and the vicuña and guanaco, which are wild species.
During pre-Hispanic times, the alpaca was distributed across much of the territory now known as Perú and the animal provided meat, skins and fibre for the substantial population of the Inca Empire. With the arrival of the Spaniards, sheep, cows and horses were introduced into the New World and the alpacas, referred to as 'long-necked sheep', were relegated to the higher altitudes in mountainous terrain where the pasture is poor and access difficult.
At the present time the alpaca population numbers some four million, mostly kept on family-run smallholdings, of which there are tens of thousands in Perú; the sale of fibre shorn from alpacas constitutes the mainstay of these families' domestic economies. Alpacas are raised together with llamas, sheep and other, smaller, animals in precarious conditions and without any technology whatsoever. The result of this is that the genetic quality of the animals has deteriorated enormously and production indices are extremely poor; the mortality rate is high and fertility low. There exists, therefore, a wide scope for work on genetic improvement, in particular regarding the quality of the fibre.