Camel Domestication History Challenges Biblical Narrative

Bible and archaeology news

“And for her [Sarai] sake he [Pharaoh] dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.”
– Genesis 12:16

Camels play a major role in the Biblical narrative of the patriarchs; the animals are mentioned over 20 times in Genesis alone. However, a recent publication by Tel Aviv University (TAU) archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen suggests that camels were not domesticated in Israel until the end of the 10th century B.C.E. This would place Israel’s first domesticated dromedaries during the period of the United Monarchy, centuries after the Genesis narratives. An American Friends of Tel Aviv University news release suggests that “this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes.”

Camels in the Ancient Near East

The September/October 2002 issue of Archaeology Odyssey includes an “Ancient Life” article that describes the importance and history of camel domestication in the ancient world:

Domesticated camels appeared in Mesopotamia by the middle of the second millennium B.C. The dromedary (a single-humped camel) was originally domesticated in southeastern Arabia, perhaps as early as the third millennium B.C. Around the same time, the Bactrian (double-humped) camel, which was mistakenly thought to be native to Bactria, in northern Afghanistan, was being domesticated in eastern Persia. The Sumerian word for the Bactrian camel literally means “wild bull from the foreign mountains.”

Once domesticated, camels greatly facilitated travel over the rough, arid terrain of the Near East and North Africa. Carrying up to 1,000 pounds on their backs, camels can walk some 25 to 30 miles in a day and go for weeks without drinking water. A thick lining in their mouths enables them to eat almost anything digestible, even thorny bushes—and a special, nearly transparent eyelid allows them to see while protecting their eyes from blowing sand. Camels also provide their owners with milk (females can produce more than a gallon a day for up to 18 months after giving birth) and fuel (dried dung).

 


 
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Using such perfectly adapted creatures, desert peoples carried out lucrative trade in frankincense, myrrh, saffron and cinnamon—a commerce completely dependent on camel caravans traveling through Arabia to the Mediterranean coast.

Camels were also important beasts of war. The fifth-century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus recounts how camels played a decisive role in the Persian Achaemenids’ victory over the Lydians of Anatolia in 546 B.C.: “The reason for confronting the Lydian cavalry with camels was the instinctive fear which they inspire in horses. No horse can endure the sight or smell of a camel. This is the fact upon which the stratagem was based, and its object was to render useless Croesus’ cavalry, the very arm in which the Lydians expected to distinguish themselves. The ruse succeeded, for when the battle began, the horses turned tail the moment they smelt and saw the camels—and Croesus’ chief ground of confidence was cut from under him” (The Histories 2.80).

Camels in Israel

For Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen examined evidence from copper production sites in the southern Levant. Radiocarbon dates suggest that domesticated camel bones in the Aravah Valley—the oldest known domesticated camel bones in the region—date to the late 10th century B.C.E. or later, corresponding with changes in smelting practices. The researchers believe that Egyptians revised smelting operations while importing domesticated camels from the Arabian Peninsula.

Read the American Friends of Tel Aviv University Press Release
 


 
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29 Responses

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  1. Seer says

    People of the past did not have a sense of technological progress as it was happening much slower. Stories were passing Orally for hundreds of years before they were put into writing. If we use this context and someone would put to writing the story of Columbus discovery of America today, he will probably assume that Columbus crossed the Atlantic ocean with steam ships. That However will not make the story fabricated.

  2. archeological says

    I can’t take this site seriously.
    “this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes.”
    Genius! They may as well say, “the fact that we don’t like the text is direct proof that it was made up at a later date”
    Why can’t people process the idea that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence? The fact that they didn’t find an older one, does not mean there is not an older one.

    Asides from the fact that they ignore all other evidence: There are many more similar discoveries in the region other that Younker’s.

    Randall Younker discovered a gold camel figurine in a kneeling position from the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (2070-1960 BC) He also found a petroglyph at Aswan in Egypt which shows a man leading a camel by a rope, dated to 2423-2263 bce, A figurine from Aabussir el Melek, Egypt showing a camel carrying a load dated to the 3rd millennium BC and a figurine from the 2nd millennium from Hama in Syria. According to Yonker:
    “This is not to say that domesticated camels were abundant and widely used
    everywhere in the ancient Near East in the early second millennium.
    However, the patriarchal narratives do not necessarily require large numbers of camels….
    The smaller amount of evidence for domestic camels in the late third and early second millennium B.C.,
    especially in Palestine, is in accordance with this more restricted use” (1997, 42:52).

  3. David says

    Thanks to Seer and areheological for a well-reasoned response.

  4. Dennis says

    ……….was originally domesticated in southeastern Arabia, perhaps as early as the third millennium B.C. Around the same time, the Bactrian …………..

    ______________________________________________________________

    Lets see, Abram was from Ur of the Chaldees. There was frequent travel, warfare and the like between the Tigris/Euphrates valley and the Levant, as far back as 2500 BCE. Camels were used all over this area at an early date. The fact that they have not found camel bones yet does not invalidate the known history of the area in or outside of the biblical narrative, but it does indicate the incompleteness of the archeological study of the area.

    Where do these people come from that publish these papers, not to illuminate knowledge, but to push a narrative?

  5. Veli says

    I think that the generally used patriarchal chronology is also misleading the critics of the historicity. If I take 20 generations backwards from David, then Abraham lived around 1500 BC. According to Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary camels came into wider use “South Arabic saddle (Hawlani/Hadaja) pack animals; overland incense trade; change in camel status, 1500 B.C”. There is no need to support a chronology that generates anachronisms.

  6. Richard says

    I fail to see the “news” in this article? Archeology has clearly shown that “Domesticated camels appeared in Mesopotamia by the middle of the second millennium B.C.” Which is approximately during the time of the Patriarchs. And the dromedary (a single-humped camel) was originally domesticated in southeastern Arabia, perhaps as early as the third millennium B.C., which would put it in Egypt as early as the time of Abraham…So where is the “news” because nothing stated here contradicts the Old Testament?…www.KingdomOfTheAntichrist.com

  7. johnnywoods says

    If the Bible indicates that there were domesticated camels in the days of Abraham, then some so-called scholar contradicts that statement guess who is wrong?

  8. Stuart says

    The title is a misnomer, as this discovery does not contradict the Bible. Note the words used- “Camels were not domesticated in ISRAEL until the 10th century BC”. As ‘archeological’ rightly pointed out camels were used as early as the 3rd millennium BC and the 3rd Dynasty of Ur (2100-1900 BC), as the images he referred to prove. According to the Bible, the state of Israel does not exist until the 12th-11th century BC (around the time of the Judges). Before then, it was the land of Canaan.

    As such, while this evidence you mentioned here may be sound, the conclusion presented is incorrect.

  9. Rick says

    The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Using 9th century bones from one location to generalize when and where camels were domesticated in ancient Israel is simply wrong.

  10. Skip says

    It is refreshing to read these comments which have more subjective reasoning and intelligence than the TAU publication itself

  11. Fred says

    The poor science behind the Ben-Yusef / Saper-Hen study is adequately pointed out here by other readers comments.

    I would just add that the arrogance of many in the pre-historical “scientists” astounds me — that they expect their analysis of scant evidence to have the power to tell such decisive stories of “what it was like back then.” I thank the academics for their studies. Please use a little more reasoning about the adequacy of your conclusions.

  12. Josh says

    And thanks to Skip who skipped his own analysis.

    So some camels died near to some well-excavated smelting sites. What does that prove? Only that camels were probably used for labor along side the semi-nomadic pastoralists (the camels probably belonging to them) in that region who were forced into indentured servitude by Egypt at that time, who Beno Rothenburg thinks included the Midianites and Amalekites. Evidence of the incence trade from Arabia around the time the Timna mines (13th/12th century) and dispersion of pottery from Qurayyah in the southern Levant suggests frequent trade activity going back and forth between Arabia and the Levant at an early time, and probably goes back even further. Most camels in that region probably traveled all over but returned to Arabia with their owners, where they died there, and probably in areas NOT well-excavated. Camel use there was probably strictly industrial in use hence explaining the unusual place of death not near any city.

    The Arabians no doubt learned how to use camels at an early time to carry wares and goods back and forth. The textual evidence from the Bible of Ishmaelites having a caravan of camels going to Egypt is no less valuable than consulting, say, the Egyptian “execration texts” which give us some of our earliest and only references to regions and peoples in the Transjordan at that time.

    Of interest to this conversation may be the observations from a webpage (http://www.bibleorigins.net/MidianitesExodusIronI.html) discussing the camel and its relation to the Transjordanian and Arabian people:

    “Another surprise was the presence of Camel bones at Har Timna and a drawing of a camel on a Midianite sherd, it is of interest that the Midianites/Ishmaelites are portrayed as using camels for the transport of goods (Ge 37:25-28) and Leviticus forbade the eating of the camel to Israel (Lev 11:4):

    “The find of numerous camel bones in the New Kingdom smelting camps of Timna must have come with people from Arabia…A drawing of a camel has been found in Qurayya, on a typical Midianite sherd…It should be noted that, contrary to the large number of camel bones found in the smelting camps, no camel bones were found in the Temple itself…This might indicate that the camel was taboo as a votive offering for the Midianites also.” (p. 277. “The Archaeological History of Site 200.” Beno Rothenberg, et al. The Egyptian Mining Temple at Timna. Institute for Archeo-Metallurgical Studies Institute of Archaeology, University College London. 1988).”

    The presence of pottery used for trade at early dates which depict camels is only another proof of their early use. I explore the interactions of Egypt with nomads in the Negev, Sinai, Transjordan and Arabia as probable referents of the Egyptian term ‘Shasu’, and at an earlier time which agrees with the Bible, in my article here: http://scholarofgod.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=74:ane-nomads&catid=40:biblical-archaeology&Itemid=57. It all serves to prove that not only do we have much to learn of those areas, its people, its society, its animals, and information on that time in general, but also that we can ill afford to not make full use of the Bible’s texts as evidence of early camel use.

  13. Sateen says

    @Seer, come up with as many excuses as you need to, to keep your lie alive.

  14. Park says

    If it is true that “Domesticated camels appeared in Mesopotamia by the middle of the second millennium B.C.”, and if Abram came from Mesopotamia about the middle of the second millennium B.C., why would it be questionable that he might have camels? Could he not have brought them with him? Isn’t it a little presumptuous to say that, since we haven’t discovered any camel bones older than 10th century, we now know that there were never any camels in Canaan until then? What of the caravans and trade that went from Mesopotamia to Egypt? In my humble opinion, the American Friends of Tel Aviv University news release suggesting that “this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes.” is seriously flawed and is presenting as facts things that lack any evidence.

  15. Josh says

    Passing along some comments and reading resources from an online discussion about this article:

    “Domesticated camel bones in Israel were unearthed in Northern Shephelah and in ‘Izbet Sartah and they suggest the pack animal was introduced to the area in the late 11th-early 10th century B.C. (if not earlier). Prof. Guy Bar-Oz (Zooarchaeology, University of Haifa) will publish an article on these bones within a few months (http://archlgy.haifa.ac.il/staff/bar-oz.htm).

    Carbon 14 does not allow precise dating of the bones found in Timna”. For example, it could also be dated to 950 (before Shishak), and this possibility changes the whole picture.”

    “Domesticated camels are also attested in Sumerian Literature (see segment C, lines 18-27) http://etcsl.orinst.ox.ac.uk/section4/tr40816.htm

    “See also:
    - http://www.silkroadfoundation.org/newsletter/vol3num1/7_bactrian.php
    - http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2014/01/18/more-on-the-domestication-of-the-camel-in-the-ane/

    “See also A. S. Saber, “The Camel in Ancient Egypt”, in Proceedings of the Third Annual Meeting for Animal Production Under Arid Conditions, Vol. 1 (1998), pp. 208-215
    ABSTRACT: The proposed time of camel entry into Egypt after its domestication in Arabia was found between 2500 and 1400 B.C. Evidences from excavation findings, archaeological records and rock engravings beginning from prehistoric time… were reported in this study.”

    “Randall W. Younker, Institute of Archaeology, Andrews University (2000): “There is actually plenty of evidence for domesticated camels from the second millennium BC.” see http://fae.adventist.org/essays/26Bcc_457-477.htm

  16. Peter says

    Interesting to note, that the third letter of the Canaanite alphabet is “gimmel”, derived from the word for camel. This alphabet was in use in the 15th century BCE. How would such an animal be incorporated into the alphabet unless it played some role in society?

  17. Everette says

    Camels did exist in the Old Testament!!! DESPITE THE ASSERTIONS IN YOUR ARTICLE evidence continues to amass that camel domestication was widely known earlier. Randall Younker adds Late Bronze Age I petroglyphs (Greek = rock/carving) depicting domesticated camels from the Sinai to that evidence. http://thedailyhatch.org/2014/02/13/despite-what-lidar-sapir-hen-and-erez-ben-yosef-of-tel-aviv-university-say-camels-did-exist-during-the-time-of-the-old-testament/

  18. D says

    Very sound critical comments here. What they found were camel bones from the 10th century BCE. Even that doesn’t prove anything about an earliest date of camel domestication in Canaan/Israel — it’s just an earliest currently known date. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Then add to that the fact that camels were domesticated earlier in the larger ancient Near East, and the claim from the AFTAU is a non sequitur. See the similar claims about the domestication of bees and bee honey, which “couldn’t have been that early” — until domesticated bee remains from ancient Israel were found.

  19. Kurt says

    Did Abraham Really Own Camels?

    CAMELS were among the domestic animals that Abraham received from Pharaoh, says the Bible. (Gen. 12:16) When Abraham’s servant went on a long journey to Mesopotamia, he “took ten camels from the camels of his master.” So the Bible clearly states that Abraham owned camels about the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E.—Gen. 24:10.
    Some do not accept this. The New International Version Archaeological Study Bible reports: “Scholars have debated the historicity of these references to camels because most believe that these animals were not widely domesticated until approximately 1200 B.C., long after the time of Abraham.” Any earlier Biblical reference to camels would therefore be considered an anachronism, or a chronological misplacing.
    Other scholars, however, argue that although the domestication of camels became a factor of importance about the end of the second millennium, this does not mean that camels were not used earlier. The book Civilizations of the Ancient Near East states: “Recent research has suggested that the domestication of the camel took place in southeastern Arabia some time in the third millennium [B.C.E.]. Originally, it was probably bred for its milk, hair, leather, and meat, but it cannot have been long before its usefulness as a beast of burden became apparent.” This dating to before Abraham’s time seems to be supported by bone fragments and other archaeological remains.
    Written evidence also exists. The same reference work says: “In Mesopotamia, cuneiform lists mention the creature [the camel] and several seals depict it, indicating that the animal may have reached Mesopotamia by the beginning of the second millennium,” that is, by Abraham’s time.
    Some scholars believe that South Arabian merchants involved in the incense trade used camels to transport their goods northward through the desert, heading to such areas as Egypt and Syria and thereby introducing camels to these areas. This trade was probably common as early as 2000 B.C.E. Interestingly, Genesis 37:25-28 mentions Ishmaelite merchants who used camels to transport incense to Egypt about a hundred years after the time of Abraham.
    Perhaps camels were not widely used in the ancient Near East at the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., but evidence seems to confirm that they were not completely unknown. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia therefore concludes: “It is no longer necessary to regard the mention of camels in the patriarchal narratives as anachronisms, since there is ample archeological evidence for the domestication of the camel before the time of the patriarchs.”
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/2011444#h=0:0-6:467
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/tl/r1/lp-e?q=camel

  20. bz says

    Am I missing where the information about the two photographs in this article is located? Could someone (perhaps the author) please tell me about the pictured figurines. Source, links back to a museum website or database? Anything? I’ve read J. P. Free – Abraham’s Camels (www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/542916?uid=3739736&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21103408597411) and am trying to determine if one of the artifacts mentioned by J. P. Free is pictured here.

  21. Dorian says

    I love to read all this religious biased comments. If the evidence points to one direction, but contradicts the bible, hey, throw away the evidence and stick with the bible!

    Bahahahahahahaha!

  22. Sarah says

    Could not a DNA test be performed on the camel bones? The date at which human DNA is discovered in the camel bones will be date at which these poor animals came into contact with humans.

  23. Christopher says

    @ Dorian. What is also telling is when an archaeological discovery is made that in no way excludes the historical account recorded in the bible and “direct proof [of] anachronism” is claimed by the researchers. I suppose there is enough bias to go around.

  24. paul says

    The domesticated camel was mentioned many times in Genesis. But these two archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen were doubtful based on their findings using 9th century bones to generalize when and where camels were domesticated in ancient Israel. To whom I should believe? To Moses – the author of the first five books of the old testament or to these two archaeologists who were born 40, 50, 60 or 70 years ago?

  25. Dorothy says

    When the wise men came from Babylon to give the Messiah gifts. , which was born in Bethlehem ,they probably road camels

  26. Jürgen says

    The whole Pentateuch is strong anachronistic written in the Babylonian Exile and even later.Best example are villages and towns mentioned during the route of the exodus. They did not exist during the time of Moses, but some 400 years later. Camels had been known at the time of Abraham, but had not been used as domestic animals.

  27. Mel says

    We know many things in history on the basis of a single textual source, and nobody gives that a second thought. In fact, when a single new bit of evidence comes to light that counters previous assumptions, everyone says it has revolutionized our understanding of the thing. The Bible is the exception to that custom. It’s assumed to false until proven true.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. عالم آثار اسرائيلي: الجمل لم يدجن في اسرائيل حتى نهاية القرن العاشر قبل الميلاد | Historical Research Services linked to this post on February 10, 2014

    [...] :  Biblical Archaeology Review Share this:MoreEmailDiggPrintShare on TumblrLike this:Like [...]

  2. Did Jesus say he was God??? - Page 824 - Religious Education Forum linked to this post on April 16, 2014

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