camel domes

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Initial Point of Contact

Bulliet hypothesizes that the Bactrian camel began their contact with humans around present day Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkmenistan around 2,500 BC. It’s not completely clear whether these camels were domesticated or not, however several archaeological sites in Turkmenistan have revealed clay models displaying wagons with a figure of a camel attached to it. Furthermore, biblical timelines are often used to estimate the point at which camels were domesticated. Through this evidence, it can be concluded that the initial contact with humans occurred for use in labor and transportation as they are depicted in the bible (Bulliet 28-36). However, recent studies have brought questions to light about whether or not these timelines are accurate, given that scientists have discovered that camels may have not really been in the area at the time. You can further explore this topic here. Despite the evidence presented in the bible, the most likely initial point of contact between camels and humans was as nourishment.

Camels enabled human civilization to spread to new climates, given their extensive adaptations. Ancient humans were able to flourish in east Africa, Arabia, and many regions of Asia in desert and arid conditions with the support of the camel. The one-humped dromedary camel is able to adapt to the hot, harsh desert climate, and the two-humped Bactrian camel has the ability to survive freezing winters in mountainous regions of Asia, therefore ancient nomadic humans were provided with animal protein and energy from consuming camel meat, and thus able to survive in these harsh climates. Civilizations that arose from these nomadic tribes would likely have never been able to endure these environments without nourishment from camel meat, as well as camel milk. In many modern cultures including India and in Central Asia, camel milk is believed to have therapeutic qualities and is even credited with the ability to cure disease. These beliefs likely developed from thousands of years of reliance on camel milk for survival. Camels have been shown to produce more milk when near humans and water sources, meaning that camel domestication had altered their natural milk-producing tendencies. Furthermore, camels tend to overgraze the land, which negatively effects their environment and leaves them without proper nourishment. Given that wild camels do not live in herds, current herd behaviors of domesticated camels makes it clear that there was a point in history at which humans began raising camels together in herds, and it was most likely at this point that camels shifted from being sources of meat to being raised and utilized for secondary purposes. Humans would have needed to maintain a vast array of nutrition for their camels to ensure the production of good quantities of milk, and camel populations likely increased as a result of their use to humans (Cockrill 176-185).

Almost all modern camels are domesticated, which could be further evidence that domestication helped to prolong the camel’s existence. The wild camel (Camelus ferus) is a separate species from domesticated camels. These wild camels live in China and Mongolia, and as of 2002 they are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a critically endangered species. Currently there are only about 1,400 wild camels in existence, which can be compared to 2 million domesticated camels in similar regions of Asia, alone. The wild camel has adopted the ability to drink salt water at a higher level of salt concentration than that of sea water, an ability that domestic camels do not possess (“The Wild Camel”). Given this evidence, it is likely that domesticated camels do not have this natural adaptation because humans provided water for the camels they kept. Therefore, humans encouraged population growth for camels, but given that wild camels evolved the ability to overcome a lack of fresh water, were humans really essential to camel survival? It seems that camels would have found a way to flourish without human influence, but could human civilizations have flourished without camels? I doesn’t seem likely.

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Beasts of Burden

The camel’s use to humans developed beyond nourishment not long after they began contact with humans. Around 1000 BC, Bactrian camels in Asia began to be used for pulling carts. They did not replace the wheel, but instead worked in conjunction with the wheel to more effectively move goods across vast distances. Their extensive use as beasts of burden began for their use on the Silk Road, which you can further explore here. Although Bactrian camels were the first used on the Silk Road, dromedaries were eventually used just as extensively along this route (Irwin 140-142). There is little evidence about the initial contact between humans and dromedary camels, however fossils have indicated that dromedary camels, like Bactrians, were probably first used for labor, given lesions found on leg bones fossils that were likely caused by the constant stress of being a pack animal . The dromedary camel has been believed to had previously believed to have been domesticated around 3000 BC in southern Arabia (Mukasa-Mugerwa), but a recent study has revealed the possibility that early domesticated dromedaries moved from the Arabian peninsula into the Aravah Valley around 930 to 900 BC. The study, conducted by Israeli archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, used radiocarbon dating and excavated evidence, which concluded that camels were used in the Aravah Valley in aid of copper production given that a high number of camel bones that were found in the Valley can be dated only from the end of the 10th century BC through the 9th century BC, thereby the camels follow copper production in the Valley. This development of domestication had dire economic and social impacts on the eastern Mediterranean area by giving the people the ability to travel large distances across the desert and open up possibilities for trade with far away empires that were once unreachable (Zonszein). Once again, camels were necessary in the development of human civilization for the transport of goods, but especially with fossil discoveries of overworked and damaged bones, were camels necessarily better off domesticated than they were in the wild?

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Camel Cavalry

Camels began to develop another important use for human civilization around the same time period, 1000 BC when dromedary camels began being used for warfare. King Cyrus the great used camels for the transportation of supplies and people into battle. King Cyrus is believe to have mounted his troops upon the backs of camels because his enemies feared the great beasts. Furthermore, the Roman general Crassus was brutally defeated at Carrhae because the Parthians had the aid of strong, resilient camels, and he did not. Camels remained a common battle element for the Parthians, and by their enemies. Emperor Trajan founded a camel corps to combat the Parthians and their army of camels. Historians have even hypothesized that nomadic raids of agricultural civilizations in North Africa that likely contributed to the desertification of the area was carried out on camels. Camel corps, troops mounted upon camels, have been used extensively throughout ancient history, and even in modern history (Irwin 140-144). The Imperial Camel Corps was one such example utilized by the Allied Powers in the Middle Eastern front during WWII. This topic is covered more thoroughly under this section. At this point in history, camels were being drawn into bloody battles by their human domesticators, once again bringing into question whether or not camel domestication was equally beneficial to camels as it was to humans.

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As you explore this blog and learn of the role camels have played throughout history, given how they are regarded by many of the very cultures that now thrive thanks to their existence, you can decide for yourself how the real benefactor of camel domestication is. It is true that camel populations are so developed given their domestication and importance to humans, but given their extreme abilities to adapt to differing climates, it’s highly likely that could have thrived without humans, as well. But could humans have thrived without the nourishment, labor, and service in battle of their domesticated camels? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

A photo of a camel. ” width=

Source: National Geographic, Sharon Perry, Reuters