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).

 


 
The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices—from dining to makeup—across the Mediterranean world.
 


 

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

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
 


 
Interested in copper mines and the early Israelite monarchy? BAS Library Members: Read “Edom & Copper: The Emergence of Ancient Israel’s Rival” by Thomas E. Levy and Mohammad Najjar as it appeared in the July/August 2006 issue of BAR.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Sign up today.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Bible Animals: From Hyenas to Hippos

The Animals Went in Two by Two, According to Babylonian Ark Tablet

The Enduring Symbolism of Doves

No, No, Bad Dog: Dogs in the Bible

Cats in Ancient Egypt

Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt
 


 

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  • Virginia says

    The two-humped Bactrian camel was domesticated in Asia probably by 3000 BC. It was a cold-climate, long-haired animal, which would be known to Mesopotamians and further west from early times.

    However, that animal was not the short-haired, one-humped dromedary which was domesticated in southeast Arabia and which was suited for that climate. Two different animals for two different geographical regions entirely. Traders along the “silk road routes” probably used the camel to reach Mesopotamia, but they were dealing in trade goods, not selling their camels.

    So, although camels were known to people in the Levant and Egypt prior to the dromedary, the Bactrian camel was not among their own livestock.

    There is one questionable identification of “camel-hair rope” found at a site in Egypt and dated to 2300-2500 BC. It may have been re-analyzed and the identification changed (I have found only one reference to the re-analysis) or in fact, it might have been camel-hair rope which was itself either a trade good from the east or used as binding for trade goods.

    There’s just no evidence for the actual animals before 1000 BC, nor are they depicted in artwork or referenced in ancient texts. When the one-humped Arabian dromedary was domesticated, they were extremely expensive animals. If they had been around before then, there would certainly have been depictions and mentions somewhere outside the bible.

    The Proto-Sinaitic/Canaanite/Phoenician alphabet originally used a throw-stick (giml), but it was changed to a camel (gaml) *later*. Several other letters were also changed (e.g., letter “n” started as snake but was changed to a fish).

  • minister says

    Let’s not forget that the bible also states that man was made from dirt and woman made from his rib. That alone invalidates the crap in the bible. Who cares if camels were domesticated when this nonsense was written?

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