The Inca were cloth makers, the likes of whom Europe had never known. Inca weavers made bridges from cords, wove roofs from fibers, and counted their wealth not in scribbles on a page but in patterns of knots on woolen strands. And they wove a woolen fabric from the fleece of the alpaca that was so soft and alluring it was prized above almost all else in the highland empire centered in what is now Peru.
Among the people of the Andes, cloth was currency. Inca emperors rewarded the loyalty of their nobles with gifts of soft fabric made by expert weavers. They gave away stacks of fine woolen textiles to assuage the pride of defeated lords. They paid their armies in silky smooth material. For an emperor intent on glory, as most Inca emperors were, cloth making was a major enterprise of state. The imperial textile warehouses were so precious that Inca armies deliberately set them afire when retreating from battle, depriving their enemies of that which made them strong.
The fabled fabric of the Inca was seemingly lost forever until Jane Wheeler, an American archaeozoologist, made a surprising discovery while examining some mummified alpacas and llamas that her colleagues had unearthed in the small pre-Columbian village of El Yaral. The ancient animals were almost perfectly preserved, right down to the fringes of their eyelashes. The mummified animals were invaluable, a thousand years old and still intact. One of the mummies was identified as a two-year-old male with a color-matched guinea pig offering placed on its chest. When Wheeler later examined skin samples from the animal mummies in microscopic detail, she noticed something more remarkable. The ancient fibers of the alpacas’ fleece were as soft as a baby’s hair compared with that produced by the alpacas that are ubiquitous in modern Peru. Today nearly half of Peru’s alpacas produce fleece that is either unusable or suitable only for rough blankets. If only Peruvians could resurrect these lost breeds they could produce textiles rivaling cashmere and, in the process, lift themselves out of poverty.
Excerpted from Secrets of the Alpaca Mummies