Beginning of Domestication

Camel domestication likely began around 3,000 BC in the central Arabian area (Cockrill 21). At this time, the camel was nearly extinct in Africa, and was very rare in the wild in the Middle East and Central Asian region. Fossil evidence rarely shows camel remains in prehistoric Stone Age sites, and it is rarely depicted as a wild animal in artifacts. During this period, the Arabian Desert was becoming increasingly widespread, hot, and barren. Camels were not well adapted to heat at this point, and were likely dying out or migrating to more Northern regions. This migration would have left small groups of camels, not willing to migrate given their presence in areas in eastern and southern Arabia where some water sources were located. It is likely that this division marks the evolution of the one humped dromedary from the two-humped Bactrian species, in that the Bactrian camels would have traveled out of the hot, dry climate, and those that were left behind began to adopt to the high temperatures and harsh climate. The camel encountered early man in two capacities: one, in ancient Mesopotamia, Iran and other Eastern regions, it would have been known as a timid, rare wild animal hunted for food. Secondly, in the Arabian region it would have been a somewhat commonplace animal that was somewhat courageous given a lack of natural predators other than man (Bulliet 34-45).

Camel Domestication: Alterations Over the Last Several Thousand Years

During the last several thousand years with the beginning of camel domestication, early domesticated camels would have morphed from illusive, timid creatures into the braver, calmer animals seen in the Arabian area at the dawn of camel domestication (Bulliet 35). It is likely that camel domestication began for their milk during the 3,000-2,500 BC time period. Early humans in the Arabian region would have likely tamed the camel to be able to utilize its milk, which may have been a simpler task given the camels in the region had begun to evolve into a less fearful creature. Domestication at this time would have also included the act of incorporation young camels into domestic cattle herds, thus developing their herd tendencies (Cockrill 21-22). Further evidence for their submissive tendencies is present by the Bible, in which camels are often depicted being ridden or transporting goods (Bulliet 35). Ancient camelids were, as mentioned, timid and individualistic creatures in the wild. Wild ancestors of the modern camel would not have traveled in large groups or packs. Thus, the beginnings of domestication started to alter camel behavior into the modern, pack oriented animal that it is now.

The rise of domestication led to growing populations of camels around 700 BC. Before this time, domesticated camels, though now interacting with humans and traveling in packs, were still part of a nomadic culture. They had no yet become a vital part of human society, nor had they yet fulfilled their full potential. This began to happen with the rise of the military, political, and economic power of the Arabs, and thus camels began to be domesticated for more important roles in society, changing their species once again. At this point, saddle techniques were being developed in order to use camels for battle purposes, and also in caravans for traded (Cockrill 24). To adapt to their new roles, camels were now becoming even more able to travel long distances bearing great weights. Later, around 500 BC, camels began to transition from their role as pack animals to fill a new position as draft animals. The camel would now have to adapt to accommodating a harness structure that would allow the animal to pull great loads for work in fields and agricultural production (Bulliet 176).

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Camel Domestication: Alterations Over the Last Several Hundred Years

Over that past several hundred years, the development of camel domestication has mainly been contained in experimentation regarding the climate and location of camels. The purpose of these experiments over the last several centuries has primarily revolved around the use of the camel for military transport of goods and people, and for general labor purposes. Though camels are responsible for the production of several important goods such as camel milk, meat, and wool, their labor purposes have been regarded as more economically beneficial, and has been the primary motivation for spreading the animal to different regions. One place which served as the location for a camel introduction experiment was in the Canary Islands off the African Coast. A Frenchman named Jean de Bethencourt conquered the islands with the support of King Henry III of Castile. Bethencourt created a colony of Frenchman in the Canary Islands, and also had camels imported from Morocco to become part of this region. This experiment proved successful, and these camels were able to acclimate to their new region given the deep interest in camel breeding developed by the colonists (Bulliet 238-241)

This type of experiment was attempted across Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Poland and Russia were the locations of an attempt to utilize Bactrian camels for use in drawing plows and wagons. In this location, camels did not grow to become a strong, self-perpetuating population, but instead had to be continually transported from Central Asia. Camel acclimation has occurred in other areas, such as southern Africa and southwestern Africa (Bulliet 244). In all of these experiments, European colonists desired the camel for its incredible abilities as a pack animal and as a draft animal. These European groups could see the economic success created by camels in the Arabian region, and craved for a share in that success. These experiments saw some success, and there are pockets of camels throughout Africa in the present day, thus proving the camel’s incredible ability to adapt to slightly differing climates. Despite the camel’s ability to acclimate to slightly different conditions, camels were brought to the United States the 18th and century, an experiment that ended in failure. Camels were unable to serve a useful purpose in this different climate, and were not valued or prolonged (Bulliet 244). One camel acclimation story that was a success was in Australia. Camels were introduced in the late 1800s, and once again were placed there with a goal of transportation of goods. Camels were used in the arid climate to transport supplies to the wild outback of Australia, given their incredible abilities to carry heavy loads and travel great expanses in extremely hot weather. The camel population introduced to the area was easily able to adapt to the new climate, and again, this domestication practice had little impact on the physiology of the species. However, this was yet another incidence of exploitation of camels. Thought the camel population reached about 20,000 in the 1920s, there are very few camels left in Australia today, given their replacement by modern technologies. A discussion was even considered of developing a wild camel in Australia that could be hunted and sold for profit (Cockrill 32-34). Simply the fact that humans are willing to consider using these resilient and powerful creatures in a sport activity speaks to the degree at which humans fail to value the camel.

Overall, these experiments make it clear that over the last several hundred years, camels have developed a very specific purpose in certain societies, and its use outside those areas is not pertinent. During this time period, domestication has subjected hundreds and thousands of camels to a harsh and often brutal death in order to serve the desires of humans. The species, though not experiencing a great amount of physical alteration, as developed a very clear role over the past several hundred years, which has been demonstrated through the incidences of success and failure of camel introduction to certain regions and societies.

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Camel Domestication: Alterations Over the Last Fifty Years

The last fifty years of camel domestication marks even further specialization, and also exploitation, of the camel in  human society. At present, most camels are dromedary, or one-humped, camels. Most dromedaries are found in North East Africa, including Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Many are also found in the Middle East, mainly India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq (Cockrill 29). Though the camel population is highest in Africa, the dromedary camel has become a symbol of the Arab Middle East, but despite this fact, camels have been losing their prominence in society over the last 50 years. With the introduction of cars in the Middle East in the 1920s, camel populations began to decrease. A drought in the Middle East from 1958-1962 left the Syrian desert overgrazed, and resulted in slow breeding rates for camels as well as high calf mortality rate. This began to cut herd size, thus leaving camels in the area to once again adjust to changing herd sizes. Beyond this, camels are labor-intensive to care for in watering, grazing, and overall care, therefore causing many people to instead herd sheep and goats. As seen before, when the exploitation of the camel becomes less profitable, the camel will be abandoned (Irwin 175-178).

One significant change in camel domestication over the past fifty years has been the prominence of camel racing.  Especially in the Arabian Peninsula, camel racing is a symbol of status and prestige to wealthy Arab citizens. By 1992, it was estimated that there were about 14,000 racing camels in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The most successful of these racing camels are fed cow’s milk and honey, and these camels are often trained on treadmills and in swimming pools. At this point in camel domestication, camels are gaining the ability to travel at higher speeds for long distances, rather than at the incredibly slow pace that dominated in the days of the Silk Road. The fastest camels are able to travel a little over 6 miles in about 18 minutes (Irwin 179-182). This modern domestication process of breeding and training extremely fast and durable camels has been another chapter in the exploitation of the animal. Camels have not historically been used to maintain such fast paces for long distances, previously being concerned mainly with ground covered. It’s difficult to say what the next chapter of camel domestication will hold, however it’s likely that the development of their use will not incorporate the well-being of the camel.

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