Bulletin 8 - July 1979: Controversy over the Domestication of the Camel

Controversy over the Domestication of the Camel

by Rob Western

(Notes on correspondence submitted to "Antiquity".)

In 1975 Dr. M. Ripinsky wrote an article for "Antiquity" entitled "The Camel in Ancient Arabia." This article asserted that the Arabian camel, Camelus dromedarius, was part of the natural fauna of the Arabian peninsula at least from the Middle Pleistocene (c. 400,000 B.C.). Dr. Ripinsky states that C. dromedarius was often depicted in very early rock-drawings (7th -3rd millenia B. C.) in the southwest. Citing the evidence of a carved camel on a tumuli stone at Umm an Nar, the author hints strongly in favor of the domestication of the camel in the late second and early first millenia B.C.

Dr. Ripinsky's article was in part challenged by Julius Zarins in "Antiquity," vol. LII, March 1978. Zarins agrees with the likely existence of C. dromedarius in the Middle Pleistocene, but states that depictions of camels are in fact rare prior to the first millennium B.C. Zarins goes on to list the criteria that must be met before domestication can be assumed. These are (i) recognition of distinct morphological changes, (ii) metric analysis where wild and domestic forms are clearly separate, (iii) observation of changes in age groups, (iv) noting the occurrence of a species outside its expected range, (v) the unequivocal association with cultural evidence (e.g., saddles and bits) and (vi) written evidence. In the case of the camel only the last two have been met, and that within the first millennium B.C. Domestication appears to have brought about virtually no change in the morphology of C. dromedarius, though this may be due to late domestication or to the animal's primary use as a beast of burden. Zarins suggests that the Umm an Nar evidence is ambiguous, that although camel bones have been unearthed there and at Hili (M. Tosi) they do not in any way imply domestication. In all the Neolithic, Ubaid or third millenium B.C. sites in Eastern Arabia no camelid material has beeli turned up. However, Tosi has built up a persuasive argument for the domestication of C. bactrianus in Iran in the third millennium B.C., and Zarins suggests that this species may have been imported into Arabia. Unfortunately the second millennium B.C. in Eastern Arabia is poor on archaeological evidence, though the onset of aridity would have created ideal conditions. Zarins concludes by stating the lack of firm evidence for domestication prior to 1000 B.C. and makes a plea for further work in stratified 3rd and 2nd millennia sites in Arabia.

In "Antiquity," vol. LII, November 1978 Dr. Ahmad Afshar of Pahlavi University in Shiraz , Iran, writes about the carved bas-reliefs of both C. dromedarius and C. bactrianus at Persepolis (founded by Darius in 520 B.C.). C. bactrianus was brought to the city as tribute from the newly-conquered eastern provinces of the Persian Empire, and the carvings resemble the modern-day Bactrian camel of Mongolia. C. dromedarius was a tribute from Arabia. The question remains whether this represents the first such imports from Arabia. It is interesting that the only type in present-day Iran is C. dromedarius, though C. bactrianus was well-established there until very recent times. Bones of C. bactrianus have been unearthed at Shah Tepe in Northern Iran in strata dating to 3000 B.C. Afshar follows Zenner (1963) in suggesting that C. dromedarius was domesticated in Arabia in the 4th millennium B.C., a point that Zarins strongly disputes. Afshar further suggests that C. dromedarius gradually replaced C. bactrianus in Persia after the Arab invasions, and that it was used for both transport and meat, as it is today.

Afshar, A.,
Camels at Persepolis, Antiquity, LII, November 1978.
Ripinsky, M.
The Camel in Ancient Arabia, Antiquity, XLIX, 1975.
Tosi, M.
Some Data for the Study of Prehistoric Cultural Areas on the Persian Gulf, Sem. for Arabian Studies, IV, 1974.
Zarius, J.
The Camel in Ancient Arabia: a Further Note, Antiquity, LII, March 1978.
Zeuner, F.E.
A History of Domesticated Animals, 1963 (London)


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