Rachel Paul, 2019 Research Grant Recipient

Vicuna Wool - Newest Trend or Oldest Fashion Statement of the Elite? By Rachel Paul
Rachel Paul, 2019 Research Grant Recipient

Baby llama at the Ilave Basin field site, Peru. Photo credit: Randy Haas

Would you pay $3800 for a sweater? Or $21,000 for a jacket?

That’s how much clothes can cost when they are made of vicuña wool. Vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) is a species of South American camel and the wild ancestors of the more familiar alpaca (Vicugna pacos).

So why are products made from vicuña wool so expensive? This has to do with the quality of the fiber. Vicuña fiber is the finest wool in the world. Only silkworms produce a finer fiber. The high price of vicuña wool is not unique to modern times. During Incan times, vicuña wool was the choice material for royal clothing, and execution was the punishment for illegal vicuña hunting. 

These observations make clear that vicuña wool has long been a prestige good that only those of high status could afford. This made me wonder when humans first began to value vicuña wool as a prestigious commodity. Did vicuña wool become a symbol of wealth after the emergence of powerful Andean states and class differentiation? Or did the value of the wool among pre-Incan populations help pave the way for later class differentiation, as increasingly, only those with high status could obtain the vicuña wool? 

Answering such questions is difficult. Faunal artifacts, like alpaca bones and vicuña wool, are prone to rapid decomposition. Surely any ancient, pre-Incan vicuña garments would have degraded long ago if they ever existed. But one day while helping catalogue artifact boxes at the UC Davis Museum of Anthropology, I found a surprising clue. In the 1960s, a former UCD anthropology professor, D.L. True excavated a series of archaeological sites approximately 4,260 ft in elevation in Northern Chile. Among the artifacts discovered at the site were numerous camelid fiber artifacts including textile and string fragments. Professor True suggested that some of these artifacts were made from vicuña wool. Although it might seem surprising to find ancient vicuña wool far from vicuña habitat (vicuña live above 12,000 ft), the Inca were well known to move valuable commodities over incredible distances within their empire.

Juvenile Llama
Rachel collects fiber samples from a baby llama in the Ilave Basin, Peru.
However, these artifacts were from a time long before the Inca empire existed. Radiocarbon dates showed that the sites dated as early as 6000 years ago—over 5000 years before the Inca. It was a time of egalitarian hunter-gatherers as opposed to prestige-seeking elites. If True was right about the artifacts being vicuña wool this would suggest that the market for vicuña wool had a very early origin. But True’s hypothesis had never been formally tested because the excavation team was not able to distinguish alpaca and vicuña artifacts.

It turns out that one can measure the diameter of a fiber to determine the species of origin. To do this, I needed a comparative collection for the archaeological samples. Published values gave me a good start, but there were some limitations. For example, it was unclear how much vicuña and alpaca diameter values overlapped. Thanks in part to an Anthropology Undergraduate Research Grant provided by the UC Davis Department of Anthropology, I traveled to the Andean highlands of southern Peru where I collected samples of alpaca and llama fibers to expand my comparative collection.

Although Professor True excavated in Chile and I obtained my samples from Peru, the collections were comparable. All of the fibers came from animals that lived in the Andes mountains that runs through both countries. 

The graph below shows the average fiber diameters of South American camelids (vicuña, alpaca, guanaco, and llama) and sheep. The comparative collection I gathered in Peru confirmed the accuracy of this chart. In Peru, I obtained samples from juvenile alpacas and llamas that were under one year of age. Despite the fact that juvenile camelids have finer fibers than adults, vicuña fibers still stand far apart from all other species. Vicuña fibers are on the order of 10-15 microns in diameter. No other species comes close, even when taking juveniles into account. In a blind test of 30 fibers from 8 species, I was able to correctly identify the presence or absence of vicuña fiber in every sample.

Camelid Fiber Values
Fiber diameters of various species measured by microscopy. Vicuña fibers stand apart from the rest in their extreme fineness

With this comparative collection and method, I was ready to examine the ancient fibers.

What I found was that most of the artifacts from the Chilean sites were made from the fibers of domesticated camelids. However, at least two of the artifacts were made from vicuña fiber. Direct radiocarbon dates are needed to confirm the antiquity of those particular artifacts. Nonetheless, my analysis shows that vicuña wool may indeed have been highly valued long before the rise of hierarchical states in South America–long before sweaters could cost $3800.

baby sheep
Investigator investigated. A lamb checks up on Rachel during her field efforts.