Alpacas migrated to South America over two million years ago. Current theory suggests that alpacas are the domesticated descendants of the vicuna. Like their cousins, the llamas, domestication took place about six thousand years ago. Alpaca and llama breeding and husbandry reached its peak during the 11th and 12th centuries AD as part of the Inca civilization. During this period, llamas were bred as "beasts of burden" used primarily by the peasants. Alpacas were bred for their exquisite fiber that was reserved for royalty.
During the 16th century, Spanish conquerors took over prime agriculture land to develop mining as the most lucrative business activity in Peru. Shepherds, along with their llamas and alpacas, were relegated to the high elevations of Peru, Bolivia and Chile. The struggle to live in this harsh environment caused a significant decline in the numbers of alpacas. However, in the 1920s, the appreciation for alpaca fiber experienced a rebirth. By the 1980s, alpaca fiber production became a strategic economic resource in Peru. Today, Peru has over 85% of the world's alpaca population. It not only protects alpacas as a natural resource, but also limits their exportation.
Until recently, alpacas were almost nonexistent outside their native lands. Most people in North America associated the word "alpaca" with a luxurious type of sweater. The few alpacas that existed in North America prior to the 1980s were scattered in zoos and private collections. A brief lifting of import restrictions in 1983 and 1984 allowed the entry of Chilean alpacas. This brought the North American population to some 500-600 head. After years of domestic breeding and limited additional importation, there are currently around 40,000 alpacas thriving in the United States and Canada.