5 reasons why domesticated camels likely existed
Did camels exist in Biblical times?
Some Biblical texts, such as Genesis 12 and 24, claim that Abraham owned camels. Yet archaeological research shows that camels were not domesticated in the land of Canaan until the 10th century B.C.E.—about a thousand years after the time of Abraham. This seems to suggest that camels in these Biblical stories are anachronistic.
Mark W. Chavalas explores the history of camel domestication in his Biblical Views column “Did Abraham Ride a Camel?” published in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Although he agrees that camel domestication likely did not take place in Canaan until the 10th century B.C.E., he notes that Abraham’s place of origin was not Canaan—but Mesopotamia. Thus, to ascertain whether Abraham’s camels are anachronistic, we need to ask: When were camels first domesticated in Mesopotamia?
Chavalas explains that the events in the Biblical accounts of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Israel and Rachel) have been traditionally dated to c. 2000–1600 B.C.E. (during the Middle Bronze Age). Camels appear in Mesopotamian sources in the third millennium B.C.E.—before this period. However, the mere presence of camels in sources does not necessarily mean that camels were domesticated.
The question remains: When were camels domesticated in Mesopotamia?
In his examination of camel domestication history, Chavalas looks at a variety of textual, artistic, and archaeological sources from Mesopotamia dating to the third and second millennia. We will examine five of these sources here:
1. One of the first pieces of evidence for camel domestication comes from the site of Eshnunna in modern Iraq: A plaque from the mid-third millennium shows a camel being ridden by a human.
2. Another source is a 21st-century B.C.E. text from Puzrish-Dagan in modern Iraq that may record camel deliveries.
3. Third, an 18th-century B.C.E. text (quoting from an earlier third millennium text) from Nippur in modern Iraq says, “the milk of the camel is sweet.” Chavalas explains why he thinks this likely refers to a domesticated camel:
Having walked in many surveys through camel herds in Syria along the Middle Euphrates River, I believe that this text is describing a domesticated camel; who would want to milk a “wild camel”? At the very least, the Bactrian camel was being used for dairy needs at this time.
4. Next, an 18th-century B.C.E. cylinder seal depicts a two-humped camel with riders. Although this seal’s exact place of origin is unknown, it reputedly comes from Syria, and it resembles other seals from Alalakh (a site in modern Turkey near Turkey’s southern border with Syria).
5. Finally, a 17th-century text from Alalakh includes camels in a list of domesticated animals that required food.
Although domesticated camels may not have been widespread in Mesopotamia in the second millennium, these pieces of evidence show that by the second millennium, there were at least some domesticated camels. Thus, camel domestication had taken place in Mesopotamia by the time of Abraham. Accordingly, Chavalas argues that the camels in the stories of Abraham in Genesis are not anachronistic.
Learn more about the history of camel domestication in Mark W. Chavalas’s Biblical Views column “Did Abraham Ride a Camel?” published in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
A version of this post first appeared in Bible History Daily in 2018
Not a subscriber yet? Join today.
The world of the Bible is knowable. We can learn about the society where the ancient Israelites, and later Jesus and the Apostles, lived through the modern discoveries that provide us clues.
Biblical Archaeology Review is the guide on that fascinating journey. Here is your ticket to join us as we discover more and more about the biblical world and its people.
Each issue of Biblical Archaeology Review features lavishly illustrated and easy-to-understand articles such as:
• Fascinating finds from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament periods
• The latest scholarship by the world's greatest archaeologists and distinguished scholars
• Stunning color photographs, informative maps, and diagrams
• BAR's unique departments
• Reviews of the latest books on biblical archaeology
The BAS Digital Library includes:
• 45+ years of Biblical Archaeology Review
• 20+ years of Bible Review online, providing critical interpretations of biblical texts
• 8 years of Archaeology Odyssey online, exploring the ancient roots of the Western world in a scholarly and entertaining way,
• The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land
• Video lectures from world-renowned experts.
• Access to 50+ curated Special Collections,
• Four highly acclaimed books, published in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution: Aspects of Monotheism, Feminist Approaches to the Bible, The Rise of Ancient Israel and The Search for Jesus.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to get to know the Bible through biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.