Modern camels are of two types, Camelus dromedarius—the one-humped dromedary—and C. bactrianus—the two-humped Bactrian, both of which are known only as domestic or feral populations. Modern dromedaries are distributed from Morocco to western India, and Bactrians from Anatolia to Mongolia. Their ranges overlap in Anatolia, Azerbaijan, and regions to the east of the Caspian Sea. It is likely that these distributions were different in antiquity, having now shifted somewhat in response to environmental change. No wild camels exist save for a possible relic population in the Gobi Desert. Pleistocene remains in the Near East and Egypt include specimens from the Paleolithic in modern Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Israel (best referred to as Camelus spec., given nomenclatural complications and an uncertain fossil history, and C. thomasi, a large form known from southern Egypt and northern Sudan). In the early Holocene, evidence for the animal is limited to a small collection from Sihi on the southern Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia. It has been radiocarbon dated to 8200 BCE (uncalibrated), although the archaeological deposit within which the bones were found dates stratigraphically to the end of the second millennium BCE. Evidence for camels becomes more abundant in the third millennium BCE with specimens from Jericho, coastal sites around the Arabian Peninsula, and Shahr-i Sokhta in eastern Iran. These last are probably Bactrian.

Dromedaries are usually assumed to have been domesticated in Arabia before the third millennium, but no clear archaeological evidence exists to support the claim. The often-cited camel-bone collections from late third millennium Umm an-Nar, Hili 8, and Ras Ghanada on the gulf coast of the United Arab Emirates cannot be shown to contain domestic animals. In fact, the associated bone finds suggest that they were hunted. Rock art depicting camels is known in Arabia and the Sinai but is difficult to date. Therefore, the use of this evidence to support a third-millennium date for domestication is inconclusive. Only further excavation in the region will settle the question of the domestication of the one-humped camel. A tiny number of camel bones is known from third-millennium sites in the Levant (Arad, Jericho)—information insufficient to determine wild or domestic status. The discovery of dung and woven camel hair in association with the bones at Shahr-i Sokhta (2700–2500 BCE) reinforces the suppositions that these are domestic stock and that the Bactrian was domesticated slightly earlier at the border of Turkmenistan and Iran. A camel-hair rope and a series of Old Kingdom depictions suggest the presence of the animal in Egypt but do not provide certain evidence for local domestication. Even later, the evidence for the camel in Egypt is sporadic. It is not until the Hellenistic period that the animal was used extensively there.

In the second millennium BCE, a two-humped camel was depicted on a Syrian cylinder seal (c. 1800 BCE), and the animal is mentioned in cuneiform texts from Mesopotamia from the Old Babylonian period onward. Clay figurines from Yemen showing dromedaries with saddles may be as old as the second millennium BCE. One theory suggests that camels had become numerous in western Arabia by 1500 BCE, contributing to the rise of oases states. However, this pattern of sharp increases in camel use is not reflected at Levantine sites. Only a very few camel-bone finds from Middle Bronze Age sites in the Levant have been reported (Megiddo, Gezer, Ta῾anach, el-Jisr, Be'er Resisim). Only the bones from the last site were excavated using modern techniques and are stratigraphically reliable. However, none of these bones have been radiocarbon dated and none can be shown to be domestic. In the Late Bronze Age, camels are still rare. Several specimens are known from Tell Jemmeh. Although it has been reported that a large number of camel bones were found in thirteenth-twelfth-century BCE sites at the copper mines of Timna῾, no report of this material has been forthcoming to allow an evaluation. At Ḥesban in Transjordan, only a few camel bones are known from thirteenth-twelfth-century levels.

William Foxwell Albright argued that dromedary domestication and the spread of its use did not much precede the twelfth century BCE. This would mean that the mention of camels in the Genesis narrative (12:16; 24:10 ff.) is anachronistic. The archaeological evidence from the Levant still bears out his point about the late spread of camel use. During the Iron Age, camel bones begin to increase in frequency. Although substantial collections have been reported from fortress sites dated to the tenth century BCE in Israel's Negev desert (Har-Sa῾ad, Qadesh-Barnea), the most dramatic and sustained increase in the use of the camel, as documented from the bones, is found at Tell Jemmeh during the Assyrian occupation in the seventh century BCE. This is coincident with the textual evidence indicating that camels were used by the Assyrian army as pack animals during military campaigns. In the Persian period, the number of camel bones increased even more, as camels were used to carry the international trade in aromatics from the Arabian Peninsula. This further increase in camels at Tell Jemmeh is roughly paralleled by a similar change at the other end of the route, in Yemen. From the textual evidence it is clear that camel management was a specialty of the Arab tribes inhabiting the Syro-Arabian desert and northern Sinai. From the Persian period until the advent of gasoline-powered vehicles, as their use on trade routes expanded, camels became more frequent at sites in the better-watered parts of the Near East. It is also from the Persian period that the animal found another use: their bones became important as a raw material in the large-scale manufacture of bone tools and objects, an industry abundantly evidenced at the port city of Ashkelon in Israel.

[See also Animal Husbandry; Ethnozoology; and Paleozoology. In addition, most of the sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]

Bibliography

  • Beebe, H. Keith. The Dromedary Revolution. Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Occasional Papers, 18. Claremont, Calif., 1990. Discusses the relationship between the camel and trade in the ancient Near East.
  • Bulliet, Richard W. The Camel and the Wheel. Cambridge, 1975. Classic exposition of camels and camel use in the ancient world.
  • Grigson, Caroline, et al. “The Camel in Arabia: A Direct Radiocarbon Date, Calibrated to about 7000 BC.” Journal of Archaeological Science 16 (1989): 355–362. Discussion of the earliest Holocene evidence for camels in Arabia.
  • Hakker-Orion, D. “The Role of the Camel in Israel's Early History.” In Animals and Archaeology, vol. 3, Early Herders and Their Flocks, edited by Juliet Clutton-Brock and Caroline Grigson, pp. 207–212. Oxford, 1983. Review of the camel in southern Israel and Sinai.
  • Midant-Reynes, Beatrix, and Florence Braunstein-Silvestre. “Le chameau en Égypte.” Orientalia 46 (1977): 337–362. Presents the archaeological evidence from Egypt, emphasizing artistic and textual records.
  • Uerpmann, Hans-Peter. The Ancient Distribution of Ungulate Mammals in the Middle East. Wiesbaden, 1987. Thorough review of the early archaeological and osteological record for the camel.
  • Wapnish, Paula. “Camel Caravans and Camel Pastoralists at Tell Jemmeh.” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society of Columbia University 13 (1981): 101–121. Links the spread of camel use and political and economic processes in the Iron Age and Persian period in the Levant.
  • Wapnish, Paula. “Beauty and Utility in Bone: New Light on Bone Crafting.” Biblical Archaeology Review 17 (1991): 54–57. Illustrates the use of camel bone as a raw material.

Paula Wapnish