Elizabeth A Stephens. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Camels are familiar to most of the English-speaking world only as beasts of burden, as Arab mounts on the silver screen, or as curiosities in the zoo. Camel meat and milk almost never find their way to the local grocer’s shelves. In many parts of Africa and Asia, however, camel milk and meat are valuable sources of nutrition for many people. The following is a broad overview of the camel’s current role as a food resource and a summary of evidence dealing with the early history of human reliance on camel products.
The people who keep camels for food are generally nomadic pastoralists, who rely primarily on livestock for their livelihood and move regularly in order to care for their animals, which, in addition to camels, may include other species such as sheep, goats, and cattle. In both Africa and Asia, camel pastoralists inhabit arid environments characterized by extreme, often unpredictable, fluctuations in temperature and rainfall. The latter may be restricted to one or two short seasons, may fail to happen in any given year, or may be localized in a very small geographic area, leaving vast stretches of the environment parched and barren. As a result, the productive potential of these ecosystems varies greatly over time and space, and those inhabiting such areas must be able to adapt quickly to variability in food, forage, and water availability. Camels are often a vital part of the pastoral strategy for coping with such harsh conditions. They cover great distances in search of limited and highly scattered forage and water, which is then efficiently converted into milk and meat for human consumption. In times of prolonged heat or drought, camels may be the only productive livestock and, consequently, are invaluable resources during critical months or seasons of scarcity.
Two Camel Species
There are two extant species of camel: the one-humped dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) of the hot deserts of Africa, Arabia, and India; and the two-humped bactrian (Camelus bactrianus) of the seasonally cold, higher deserts of the Iranian plateau, central Asia, China, and Mongolia. The camel’s closest living relatives belong to the once species-rich suborder Tylopoda, which today includes the llama, alpaca, guanaco, and vicuña of South America. In this chapter, the generic term “camel” is used to refer to both species of Old World camels when it is not necessary to distinguish between them. However, it is the case that dromedaries and bactrians are uniquely adapted to the extremes of their native environments, resulting in important differences between them.
Dromedaries have longer legs, their winter coats are much thinner, and their summer coats are more reflective than those of bactrians. These traits are suited to surviving the intense and prolonged heat of the Arabian and African summers. Bactrians are also adapted to surviving in arid conditions, but their stockier builds and thick winter coats allow them to weather the icy winters of the highland deserts of Asia. In China, bactrians regularly experience temperatures of -30° C (-22° F) in the winter and 42° C (107.6° F) in the summer (Wei 1984). Although bactrians can survive in a wide range of temperatures, they are usually not found where the mean annual temperature is above 21° C (69.8° F) (Mason 1984).
Dromedaries and bactrians are not perfect biological species because they can (and do) mate. The resulting hybrids are larger than either parent and have one elongated hump. Unlike the hybrid offspring of horses and donkeys, first-generation camel hybrids are fertile (Gray 1954). However, if two first-generation hybrids are mated, the resulting second-generation hybrids display suboptimal qualities and are often infertile (Gray 1954; Bulliet 1975). Hybrid camels can be successfully mated with either a pure-blooded dromedary or a pure-blooded bactrian. The resulting offspring resemble the pure-blooded parent in size and number of humps (Bulliet 1975).
Historically, these first-generation hybrid camels were popular caravan animals due to their larger size and greater stamina than either purebred parent (Bulliet 1975; Toplyn 1995). Hybrid camels were also better able to survive the climatic extremes encountered at either end of the trade routes that connected China and the Iranian plateau with Arabia and Egypt. In order to maintain a constant supply of these large-bodied hybrids for caravan traffic, pastoralists had to continuously breed pure dromedary and bactrian parents so as to obtain viable hybrids. Today, hybrid camels are still being produced in the former Soviet Union, where dromedaries of the Turkmen tribes are bred with Kirghiz bactrian camels (Bulliet 1975).
It is not clear from archaeological and paleontological data whether the natural geographic ranges of dromedaries and bactrians overlap or whether their modern ranges are the result of human intervention. Like horses, camels originated in North America and migrated to Asia around 3 to 4 million years ago (Wilson 1984; Stanley, Kadwell, and Wheeler 1994). During the Pleistocene, many species of camel inhabited the Eurasian and African landmasses. Their bones have been recovered across Asia from Siberia to India, from Eastern Europe, and across North Africa as far south as Olduvai Gorge (Howell, Fichter, and Wolff 1969; Badam 1979; Wilson 1984; Dubrovo and Nigarov 1990; Germonpré and Lbova 1996).
Indeed, camels seem to have been successful animals that enjoyed a wide distribution until the beginning of the Holocene (about 10,000 years ago), after which their remains become extremely rare in the archaeological record of central and southwestern Asia (Bulliet 1975; Zarins 1978; Hoch 1979; Wapnish 1984; Uerpmann 1987; Tchnernov 1989; Germonpré and Lbova 1996). The few pieces of evidence from the early Holocene suggest that wild camels were confined to the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula and the deserts of central Asia, and it was not until about 1500 B.C. that domestic camels began to spread across southwestern and central Asia to occupy their current ranges.
In other words, prior to domestication, wild camels seem to have been close to extinction—inhabiting severely restricted ranges in southern Arabia and in parts of central Asia (Bulliet 1975; Russell 1988). But today, domestic camels inhabit the arid regions of North and East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, parts of Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, northwestern India, central Asia, northwestern China, and southern Mongolia (Map II.G.3.1). Dromedaries were also introduced into Australia in the late 1800s, and today 15,000 to 20,000 feral dromedaries roam the central and western parts of that continent (McKnight 1969).
Access to water seems to have played a pivotal role in the decline of wild camel populations and may have been a significant factor in their domestication. Despite the camel’s ability to survive without drinking for extended periods (weeks to months depending on the water content of their forage), eventually they do have to replace their water losses. Studies of wild camels in China and Mongolia indicate that severe droughts force them to congregate around the few remaining sources of water, which, among other things, exposes them to increased predation by wolves (Tulgat and Schaller 1992). In fact, recent droughts have caused a sharp decline in the wild camel populations in these areas. Yet domestic camels seem to avoid the problems of drought and predation through their association with humans. In Africa, Arabia, and Mongolia, camels often rely on humans to access water in wells or cisterns, especially when rain-fed water-holes dry up (Yagil 1985). Some camels have been known to wait by a well for weeks in order to secure water.
Camels, however, cannot always afford to flee a drought-stricken area for greener pastures and more abundant water because moist environments can also be deadly, especially to dromedaries. Humid environments with standing water are often breeding grounds for tsetse flies that transmit trypanosomiasis and other diseases (Fratkin and Smith 1994), which kill many camels every year and limit the distribution of the dromedary in Africa and India (Wilson 1984; Yagil 1985). Pastoralists are keenly aware that certain swampy areas spread disease and will take their camels there for water only when no other options are available (Fratkin and Smith 1994).
In addition, camels are notoriously maladapted to wet, muddy ground, which, because of their unique physiology of long legs, unilateral gait, and large padded feet, makes them unstable. They often pull muscles, dislocate joints, or break limbs if forced to cross such areas (Russell 1988). Moreover, camels are “front-wheel-drive” animals. Unlike horses, camels use their forelimbs rather than their hind limbs for propulsion. This trait, in combination with padded rather than hoofed feet, leaves them at a severe disadvantage in rocky and mountainous areas (Sato 1980; Russell 1988).
Food and Water Requirements
Compared to other common domestic livestock, such as cattle, sheep, and goats, camels are the most efficient users of water, much of which they can obtain from their herbivorous diet. When necessary, they conserve water by producing a very concentrated urine and dry feces and by reducing water lost through perspiration. In response to solar radiation, dromedaries tolerate core body temperature fluctuations from 34° C to 42° C (93.2° F to 107.6° F) throughout a day (Schmidt-Neilsen 1964), thereby decreasing the need to sweat to regulate body temperature. They can also tolerate a loss of significantly more water relative to their body weight than other livestock, which reach critical limits when they lose 10 percent of their body water (Russell 1988). Dromedaries regularly lose one-third of their body weight in water and survive (Yagil 1985).
The camel’s humps are fat deposits that also aid in water conservation. By concentrating fat along the back, the rest of the body is able to cool itself more efficiently. The dorsal fat concentrations not only are insulation against the brunt of solar radiation but also allow the body to radiate heat more efficiently than would be possible if fat were distributed evenly over the whole body. In addition, behavioral mechanisms aid in cooling. During the hottest part of the day, dromedaries tend to lie near each other, facing the sun, which minimizes body surface exposure to direct solar radiation. Calluses on the knees and chest of the camel allow it to rest on hot sands and to elevate its midsection, which enhances airflow beneath the body. Thus, the animal can reach a greater cooling potential. When water is available, a thirsty camel can replace even extensive water deficits by drinking as much as 200 liters in 3 minutes (Yagil 1985).
The camel’s efficient use of water enables it to access seasonally and spatially dispersed high-quality forage that other livestock cannot. Often, forage protein content is inversely related to water availability (Russell 1988). Forage that is abundant after periodic rainfall or in areas around predictable water sources generally contains less protein than plants grown in drier areas. Camels move almost continuously as they graze, enabling them to cover many kilometers (km) each day; in fact, they can graze from 50 to 80 km away from water sources, whereas sheep and goats are limited to 20 to 30 km and cattle to 4 to 13 km (Dahl and Hjort 1976; Sato 1980; Russell 1988). As a result, camels are able to use the more concentrated packages of plant protein that are scattered across the landscape and located far enough away from water sources to be inaccessible to other livestock.
Camels are primarily browsers and are able to eat plant species that other livestock cannot, such as camel thorn, Acacia species, and saltbushes (Yagil 1982). When camels, cattle, sheep, and goats are herded together, they compete for some of the same plants, especially grasses (Sato 1980); consequently, camels are usually herded separately to ensure adequate forage for all livestock.
Although all livestock need salt in their diet, camels need more than sheep, goats, and cattle, and to meet these requirements, they must regularly visit areas with saline water or salt-rich plants (Sato 1980; Bernus 1990; Jabbur 1995). Alternatively, pastoralists may collect salt crystals or salt-rich earth to carry back to their camel herds.
In short, camels are well adapted to living in arid environments because they have evolved many mechanisms to conserve water and are able to consume a wide range of plant species. These adaptations decrease competition with other herbivores that share the same environments. From a husbandry standpoint, however, such adaptations often create extra work for pastoralists. If camels must be watered from a well, the human labor needed to satisfy their thirsts can be substantial, as even a small herd of 10 to 20 animals may need thousands of liters of water (Yagil 1985). This probably explains why, in the biblical story of Rebekah, Abraham’s servant was so impressed by Rebekah’s offer to water his 10 camels (Gen. 24:29).
Camels’ Productive Potential: Labor and Food
Camels are physiologically much better adapted than humans to living in the deserts and semi-deserts of Africa and Asia, yet many people inhabit arid regions of the world. As part of their survival skills, humans have learned to use products from camels and to harness their power. However, not all people utilize camels and camel products the same way.
Historically, camels were very important for carrying loads over long distances and difficult terrain, and early long-distance trade flourished because of camel caravans. Exotic spices were transported from southern Arabia to the urban centers of Egypt and Mesopotamia during the first millennium B.C. Later, in the early centuries A.D., camels carried trade items along the Silk Route between Persia and China (Bulliet 1975). As mounts and water carriers, camels were also valuable in desert warfare. Some of the earliest literary accounts that mention domestic camels tell of mounted pastoralists from southern Arabia raiding villages to the north, and the animals continued as military mounts until as recently as the early part of the twentieth century in Arabia and India (Bulliet 1975). Camels have also served less dramatic but important roles in the daily lives of nomadic pastoralists, and still today, nomadic pastoralists use the animals to carry dwellings, household belongings, and old or very young people during regular migrations and relocations (Hobbs 1989).
With minimal loads, dromedaries can maintain a pace of 16 km (10 miles) per hour for up to 18 hours (Yagil 1985). Depending on the age, size, and health of the camel, a load of over 300 kilograms (kg) can be carried for several days, and up to 800 kg can be carried for short trips (Gauthier-Pilters and Dagg 1981). Bactrians in China continue to be used primarily as beasts of burden that can easily carry normal loads, averaging 40 percent of their live weight, 35 to 40 km in 24 hours (Wei 1984). Riding camels are also common in China and Mongolia; in fact, in the Chinese deserts, a bactrian camel is considered a more comfortable mount than a horse, and it maintains a pace of 5 to 10 km per hour (Wei 1984).
Today, however, the role of the camel as a transport animal is declining in many parts of the world. Except where automobiles and gasoline are still prohibitively expensive, camels are being replaced by motorized transport.
Milk Quality, Quantity, and Processing
Cross-culturally, milk is the most important edible product obtained from camels. Whether consumed fresh, processed for storage, or mixed with the milk of other livestock, this nutritious product is harvested by almost all pastoralists who keep camels. The absolute quantity and specific qualities of each camel’s milk varies with the quantity and quality of available forage and water and the animal’s health and age. The nutritional value of camel milk varies because of cultural norms regulating its collection, processing, and distribution within and outside of the pastoral group.
Milk quality. According to J. S. Jabbur (1995), camel milk is higher in vitamin C, fat, protein, and minerals than milk from other livestock raised under the same desert conditions. Certainly, this source of vitamin C is very important to people who inhabit areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are not available year-round. Camel milk contains between 5.7 and 9.8 mg of vitamin C, which is 3 times the amount found in cow’s milk and 1.5 times the amount found in human milk (Yagil 1982).
The water content of camel milk varies inversely with the amount of available drinking water. Studies have found that when water was freely accessible, camels produced relatively concentrated milk, consisting of around 86 percent water; when drinking water was restricted, however, the milk became more diluted, with a water content of some 91 percent (Yagil 1982; el Amin 1984; Knoess 1984; Shalash 1984b). Such an adaptation is extremely valuable to both camel calves and people because, in conditions of heat stress and mild dehydration, the diluted milk serves as a source of needed liquid.
The fat content of camel milk also changes in response to the state of hydration of the animal. A hydrated dromedary produces milk with 3.0 percent to 5.38 percent fat, whereas the milk of one that is dehydrated may contain only 1.1 percent fat (Yagil 1982; el Amin 1984; Knoess 1984). Bactrian milkfat has been measured at slightly higher levels—5.8 percent to 6.6 percent (Shalash 1984b). The various milks produced by other livestock species contain similar amounts of fat. Water buffalo, cows, goats, and sheep produce milk with 7.5, 3.5, 2.8, and 3.7 percent fat, respectively (Knoess 1984). Structurally, camel milkfat is somewhat different from cow, sheep, and goat milkfat in that it is distributed in very small globules (1.2 to 4.2 microns), which are also bound to proteins (Yagil 1982). This structure makes it very difficult to separate the fat from the milk and probably explains claims that butter cannot be made from camel milk. In fact, camel milk can be made into butter and cheese, but with some considerable difficulty, and consequently, when available, sheep, goats, and cattle are generally the preferred sources of milk for these products.
Lactose levels and protein concentrations do not vary with the hydration level of the animal. There are, however, individual and breed differences. Protein may constitute between 2 and 5.5 percent of camel milk, and some camels produce sweeter-tasting milk with lactose levels of 5.8 percent or more. Lower lactose levels are also common and give the milk a slightly sour taste (Yagil 1982). Buffalo, cow, goat, and sheep milk contain similar levels of lactose (Knoess 1984), although those of horse and human milk are higher (6.9 and 7.0 percent, respectively) (Shalash 1984b).
Milk quantity. It is difficult to compare milk yields between dromedaries and bactrians and between different populations of camels from around the world. Daily milk yields seem to vary a great deal with the season, the age of the calf, and the availability of forage and water. Lactation begins when a camel gives birth, and its duration varies depending on food and water availability. Milk production will normally cease when the camel becomes pregnant again or if the calf dies, but pastoralists have developed ingenious methods of encouraging the camel to continue to produce milk when the latter occurs. For example, the camel is often tricked into thinking that her calf is still alive by the pastoralists’ covering another calf with the skin and scent of the dead calf and encouraging it to suckle (Yagil 1982).
As a rule, bactrians lactate continuously for 14 to 16 months (Wei 1984), whereas dromedaries lactate for 12 to 20 months after a calf is born (Sato 1980; Yagil 1982). In parts of Africa, sheep and goats will give milk for only 3 to 4 months, and cattle for about 10 months (Sato 1980). Therefore, if people relied only on cattle or sheep and goats for milk, they would have to do without an important part of their diet for several months at a time.
Various methods of measuring camel milk yields have generated a wide range of daily and annual production estimates. Most of these are not explicit about whether the volume of milk obtained represents only the amount destined for human consumption or whether it also includes the amount normally consumed by the calf. Nevertheless, a survey of the literature indicates that dromedaries produce more milk on average than bactrians and that dromedary milk yields from across Asia, India, and Africa vary between 3.5 and 50 kg per day (Yagil 1982; Knoess 1984). In East Africa, camels produce an average of 3.5 to 4.0 liters of milk per day in the dry season and up to 10 liters per day in the wet season (Fratkin and Smith 1994). This quantity is quite impressive when compared to cattle in the same environment, which were able to produce only 1 liter per day in the wet season and 0 to 0.2 liters in the dry season. In northern Kenya, camels give twice as much milk as cattle and nine times that of sheep and goats (Sato 1980).
A camel’s ability to produce milk is also influenced by the number of times it is milked per day, with more frequent milkings increasing a dam’s total milk yield by 10 to 12 percent (Shalash 1984b). Milking frequency is a function of the herding practices employed and the household’s need for milk. If camels must graze far away from the household, then they are milked less frequently than animals that graze nearby. In Sudan, hydrated camels yield 2.5 to 5 kg of milk at midday, and morning and evening milkings each yield 3.5 to 5 kg, which means a daily milk yield of 8.5 to 15 kg (Hjort and Dahl 1984). Raikas in India can obtain up to 10 liters of milk per day from their camels by milking them three to five times daily (Köhler-Rollefson 1992).
Bactrian camels produce an average of 5 kg of milk per day, although 15 to 20 kg have been obtained from specific animals. In China, most of the milk is left for the calf, and only about 2 kg is milked for human consumption (Yagil 1982).
Milk processing. Cultural practices can have a large effect on the nutritional benefits of camel milk, and many differences exist in milk-processing methods, the percentage of the diet derived from milk and milk products, and the distribution of the milk products within and outside the group. In most instances, camel milk is mixed with the milk of other lactating animals before it is consumed or processed, and if the milk is not to be consumed fresh, it is quickly processed to keep it from spoiling. Such processing usually results in those fermented milk products that are ubiquitous wherever milk is consumed. They are known by a variety of names around the world—such as kefir, matzoon, dahdi, yoghurt, and lehben, to name a few—but all are produced by the same basic method.
First, the milk is boiled for several minutes, which kills any pathogenic bacteria that may be in it. Once the milk has cooled to 79° F to 86° F, a starter culture from a previous batch of fermented milk is added. The milk is stirred and allowed to ferment overnight at room temperature, after which the resulting product can be safely stored for several days at room temperature (Yagil 1982). The fermentation process generally decreases the lactose content of the milk by converting it to either ethyl alcohol or lactic acid depending on the type of bacteria used. In human populations that do not maintain high lactase (the enzyme needed to digest lactose) levels as adults, soured or fermented milk is the preferred form for consumption (Simoons 1981). However, most human populations that have kept camels for centuries maintain high lactase levels as adults (Yagil 1982).
Another common method of preserving raw milk is to gently boil and evaporate it over a fire. The resulting solids (fats and proteins) are mixed with sugar to form a sweet, buttery, semisolid, cheese-like substance (Yagil 1982). To make butter requires up to 4 hours of churning or the use of a special blender, and the result generally has a greasy consistency. Most often, it is used for cooking, as a cosmetic, and for medicinal purposes. Buttermilk, left over from the butter-making process, often serves as a base for soup (Yagil 1982).
Milk as a Dietary Staple
G. Dahl and A. Hjort (1984) have calculated that 4 kg of camel milk will deliver an individual’s daily caloric needs and more than enough protein, which means that a herd of 18 to 20 camels can supply the nutritional needs of a six-person family (two adults and four children). Most camel pastoralists, however, do not live on milk alone; domestic grains, hunted game, and gathered wild plants also contribute significantly to their diets (Hobbs 1989; Fratkin and Smith 1994; Jabbur 1995).
Cultural practices surrounding the use of camel milk vary greatly around the world. In India, for example, its consumption is limited to the camel-breeding caste known as the Raikas (Köhler-Rollefson 1996), and both the sale and the processing of camel milk into curds is taboo, although it may be given away (Köhler-Rollefson 1992). Raikas usually drink camel milk fresh, but on some occasions it is boiled and sweetened or made into rice pudding. Such practices and regulations ensure that most of the milk produced by Indian camels is not consumed by humans and that few Indian people outside of the Raika caste ever taste it.
In Arabia, Africa, and central Asia, however, the camel’s milk-producing ability is fully utilized. The Rwala of Arabia claim (apparently correctly) that camel milk, supplemented with wild game, roots, and seeds, constitutes a sufficient diet (Lancaster and Lancaster 1990), although camel milk has recently become less important in the diets of Arabian Bedouins, who are being forced to settle permanently and sell their camel herds (Köhler-Rollefson 1993). For many in Africa, however, milk—including that of camels—is still a major dietary component. It supplies fully 75 percent of the daily calories in Rendille diets, 60 percent in Maasai diets, 60 to 70 percent in Boran diets, and 62 percent in Turkana diets (Fratkin and Roth 1990). In Kazakhstan, milk and milk products can supply up to 90 percent of the daily diet, and although this milk comes from several species of livestock, camels provide 37 percent of the total, sheep another 30 percent, yak 23 percent, and cows 10 percent (Yagil 1982).
Worldwide, labor and milk are the most important products obtained from camels, and often, camel pastoralists must choose husbandry strategies that optimize the production of milk and labor at the expense of meat yields. Such strategies emphasize the retention of adult females and the culling of young, unnecessary males, with labor supplied by nonpregnant females and/or castrated adult males (Wapnish 1984). The result is to limit the number of mature animals that can be harvested for meat. Generally, only old animals and young males not needed for breeding purposes are slaughtered. In many traditional societies, young camels are slaughtered only for special ceremonies and celebrations, and other unwanted animals are usually sold in commercial markets (Wapnish 1981; el Amin 1984; Köhler-Rollefson 1996).
In modern Sudan, however, pastoralists who raise camels rarely consume their meat but rather sell old animals to international markets for consumption in Egypt, Libya, and Saudi Arabia (el Amin 1984). Meat from old camels is tough and (save for their livers) not highly regarded among urban consumers, whereas meat from camels 5 years old and younger is as tender (and as highly valued) as beef; in fact, camel meat is said to taste like coarse, slightly sweet beef (el Amin 1984; Shalash 1984a).
The slaughter of an adult camel produces a large quantity of meat. Male dromedary carcasses may weigh more than 400 kg, whereas a bactrian may exceed 650 kg (Yagil 1982; Wei 1984). In general, a dressed dromedary carcass yields between 52.6 and 76.6 percent meat (el Amin 1984), and dressed bactrian carcasses have been reported to yield 35.4 to 51.7 percent (Wei 1984). The meat is generally very lean, with the total fat content of a carcass varying between 0 and 4.8 percent, depending on the age and nutritional status of the animal. The fat is concentrated in the hump and around the kidneys; that from the hump is melted and used instead of butter for cooking by some Arabian Bedouins (Jabbur 1995).
In addition to husbandry considerations, cultural and religious proscriptions limit the use of camel meat in many countries. In India, for example, Hindus will not eat camel meat, and it is also avoided by Christian Copts of Egypt, Christian Ethiopians, Zoroastrians of Iran, Mandaeans of Iraq and Iran, Nosaioris of Syria, and many Jews (Yagil 1982).
Several groups in eastern Africa use the blood of camels (as well as that of cattle) as a food resource that supplies valuable nutrients, including iron, salts, protein, and vitamin D (Yagil 1982). Blood may be drawn from a camel up to twice a month, and the animal can produce between 2 and 5.5 liters with each bleeding (Shalash 1984a; Bollig 1992). Blood is usually processed before consumption by first collecting it in a bowl and stirring it with a stick. Because fibrin, a blood-clotting protein, collects on the stick, it is easily separated from the rest of the blood and generally roasted before it is eaten. The remaining blood is either mixed with milk or boiled and mixed with maize flour (Bollig 1992).
Camels provide many other valuable products, including wool, urine, and dung. In Sudan and India, dromedary wool is collected as the animals begin to molt and is used to make jackets, robes, tents, ropes, blankets, and carpets (el Amin 1984; Köhler-Rollefson 1992). In China and Mongolia, bactrian wool is a highly valued product that is often made into cushions, mattresses, bags, and ropes (Wei 1984). Among the Bedouins of Arabia, camel urine is used as a hair tonic (Jabbur 1995). Apparently its high salt content gives hair a reddish tint and prevents vermin infestations. Dung, also a valuable commodity, is often dried and stored for heating and cooking fuel (Jabbur 1995). And finally, if a person is lost in the desert and desperate for water, a camel may be slaughtered for the water contained in its stomach (Jabbur 1995).
Given the previous discussion of the camel’s productive potential, one might wonder why camels are not more widely and intensively herded, or why people bother to herd other livestock with their camels. These questions are best answered by examining the camel’s reproductive characteristics and the resulting husbandry strategies employed by camel pastoralists. Pastoralists have developed a variety of strategies that optimize the camel’s productive potential in their particular social and ecological environment. Specifically (as already noted), pastoralists must balance the harvesting of camel products today against the need for future herd growth. This is usually calculated in terms of how much milk and meat can be taken for human consumption versus the amount of milk required by calves and the number of animals necessary to meet future production needs and to hedge against future unpredictable calamities.
Life History and Reproductive Characteristics
An animal’s ability to reproduce quickly is a valuable trait to pastoralists. Reproductive potential depends on the age of first reproduction, the potential number of offspring per year, and infant mortality. A quick comparison of annual calving rates—0.4 or less for camels, 0.4 to 0.8 for cattle, and 0.8 to 2.0 for sheep and goats—shows that camels are among the slowest reproducers of any domestic livestock species (Russell 1988; Herren 1992). Their low rate results from a 12- to 13-month gestation period (which is shorter for dromedaries than bactrians) and, typically, a 24- to 36-month span between births. Other factors that lower reproductive potential include the frequent restriction of breeding to rainy seasons and susceptibility to trypanosome, brucellosis, and pasteurellosis infections that trigger abortions.
The interval between births can be narrowed with intensive management practices, but this practice appears to shorten the female’s life and limit the total number of offspring (Bollig 1992). Because camel herds increase at a rate of 8 percent or less annually, it takes a minimum of 15 years, and potentially as many as 50 years or more, for one to double in size (Dahl and Hjort 1976; Russell 1988; McCabe 1990). Such slow reproductive rates directly affect how people manage camel herds for food production and how they manage social obligations and their own reproductive rates (Galvin, Coppock, and Leslie 1994). Because camels will lactate only after giving birth and usually stop lactating shortly after becoming pregnant again, pastoralists carefully manage herds to ensure that at least some animals are lactating at any given time. But even with good luck and careful management, only 15 to 22 percent of the females may be lactating at one time. The camel’s low calving rate also limits the number of young males that can be slaughtered for meat (Herren 1992). But the trade-off is that if a calf is slaughtered, all of the dam’s milk becomes available for human consumption, providing, of course, that the dam can be tricked into continuing lactation.
Human-labor requirements are an important obstacle to the efficient utilization of domestic animals in pastoral societies because the availability of this labor limits the total number of livestock that can be herded by a single household. As we have seen, differing needs for food, water, preferred forage, rates of locomotion, duration of milk production, and breeding cycles prevent sheep, goats, cattle, and camels from being herded in a single group. Labor requirements are not constant throughout the year, but as herds are divided into milking and nonmilking and breeding and nonbreeding groups, more labor is required (Sato 1980; Roth 1990; Fratkin and Smith 1994). Pastoralists also face the constant problem of maintaining that delicate balance between labor requirements necessary to care for livestock and the number of people that can be supported by a given number of livestock (Fratkin and Smith 1994). To achieve and maintain this balance was doubtless at the root of the development of many inheritance, exchange, ritual, and human population control practices among camel pastoralists (Sato 1980; Fratkin and Smith 1994; Galvin et al. 1994).
Differences in livestock water requirements, forage plant species preferences, and grazing speed frequently force pastoral subsistence groups to split up for large portions of the year (Sato 1980; Sperling 1987; Bollig 1992; Fratkin and Smith 1994). This split often takes place along age or gender lines, resulting in dramatically different diets among members of the society (Sato 1980; Galvin et al. 1994). Illustrative are the Rendille of Kenya, who strictly delegate performance of the various herding tasks. Camels may be herded and milked only by young unmarried men; consequently, this segment of the Rendille population spends the longest time away from the main camp and covers the greatest distances during the grazing rounds. While on herding duty, these men subsist solely on camel milk and blood. Unmarried men and women herd small stock (sheep and goats) and consume both maize meal and milk while away from the base camp during the dry season. Adults, children, and the elderly, who remain at the base camp throughout the dry season, must subsist primarily on maize meal because few lactating animals can be supported on the meager forage available near the camp (Sato 1980).
Mixed Herding Strategies
Given that herding several different livestock species requires the division of pastoral societies and more herding labor than “camel-only” strategies, one might ask why so many pastoral societies go to such trouble. The answer is that a mixed pastoral system is an effective hedge against episodes of food scarcity. For example, if a camel herd is wiped out by a disease, it may take a lifetime to rebuild it. Alternatively, sheep and goats, although more likely to die during extended droughts, are able to quickly reproduce their numbers. Moreover, in most pastoral economies, sheep and goats satisfy immediate needs for meat and are often exchanged for grains.
Camels, however, are kept for the products that can be obtained from live animals during times of scarcity. In short, pastoralists use sheep and goats as we would use spending money, whereas camels are a form of stored wealth that might be equated with long-term stock or bond investments. In addition to maintaining diverse livestock herds, many pastoralists further diversify their resource base through trading relationships. They exchange animals and animal products for agricultural and industrial products and may also “loan” animals to relatives and neighbors or “adopt” children if herding requirements exceed the available labor (Russell 1988). These relationships can be used to optimize herd production and labor utilization over a greater geographic area.
Moreover, camels and other livestock can be viewed as a form of stored food for pastoralists. They not only represent food reserves that can be utilized on a regular basis but also serve to concentrate scattered or inedible nutrients into highly nutritious and accessible packages for human consumption (Russell 1988). Additionally, to return to the theme of stored wealth, the ability of camels to survive severe droughts better than other livestock, as well as their 30-year lifespan, makes them desirable “banks.” For example, during a series of droughts in northern Africa between 1968 and 1973, the Tuareg lost 63 percent of their cattle and 47 percent of their sheep but only 38 percent of their camels (Bernus 1990). After a severe drought, camels can be sold or exchanged for necessities and to replace lost livestock.
The Camel in Antiquity
Very little is known about the earliest culinary uses of camels because of the nature of the archaeological record and because of the camel’s preference for desert environments. The archaeological record is generally best preserved within structures such as buildings, cities, and natural enclosures such as caves. Camels, however, do not, and presumably did not, live in these environments. Not surprisingly, then, very few archaeological sites have produced evidence for the early use of camels. Before they were domesticated, camels were hunted for their meat, hides, and bones, and it is doubtful that they were exploited for their milk until after domestication.
But before humans could hunt wild camels or, later, milk domestic camels, humans first had to come into contact with them, and human-camel interaction is rarely documented in the archaeological record prior to the third millennium B.C. What little evidence of such contact is available comes from southwestern Asia (the presumed refuge of the wild dromedary) and (for the bactrian camel) from sites on the Iranian plateau, in central Asia, and in China (Map II.G.3.2).
Camel bones from Paleolithic sites (before 10,000 B.C.) in Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, and Israel attest to the wide distribution of a camel species—presumably the dromedary—prior to the Holocene. Subsequently, however, camel remains become much more rare, suggesting that they either were not in the vicinity of archaeological sites or, for some unknown reason, were not a regular food source.
Some of the earliest rock art, dated between 6000 and 3500 B.C., shows dromedaries and speared dromedaries (Anati 1970; Zarins 1989), and archaeological evidence confirms the presence of camels in southern Arabia at this time. At Sihi, a shell midden on the Red Sea coast, a camel mandible was recovered and directly radiocarbon-dated to about 7000 B.C. (Grigson 1989). Moreover, camel bones from southern Jordan were found in seventh-millennium-B.C. contexts (Köhler 1984), whereas other camel remains discovered in the United Arab Emirates were likely from the fourth millennium B.C. (Uerpmann 1987).
In southern Arabia, rock art images showing hunting scenes, hunting parties, and the use of bows and arrows provide pictographic evidence that local hunters were responsible for the camel bones found at several of the area’s sites and dating from between 3500 and 1900 B.C. (Zarins 1989). Third-millennium-B.C. sites along the Gulf coast of the United Arab Emirates have also yielded numerous such bones (Hoch 1979; Uerpmann 1987), including those from the island site of Umm an-Nar, where, although it is not clear whether the camels were wild or domesticated, they were most certainly introduced by humans (Hoch 1979).
The long history of human-camel interaction in southern Arabia indicates a likely environment for the occurrence of domestication but does not document exactly when such an event might have happened. However, it would seem that we can actually spy early domestic camels to the north of Arabia. In the Sinai and the Levant, camel images are absent from rock art traditions (suggesting that wild camels were unknown), but their bones nonetheless begin to appear in second-millennium-B.C. urban sites (Lernau 1978; Hakker-Orion 1984; Zarins 1989). For an explanation, we return to southern Arabia, where people for millennia had kept sheep, goats, and cattle and lived in permanent structures made of stone. But then, presumably, the ecological changes caused by desiccation and a concomitant expansion of the desert forced the adoption of a more mobile lifestyle. It is believed, in other words, that the bones found on the northern edge of the desert were those of domesticated camels, upon which the now mobile pastoralists from southern Arabia had begun to visit the urban centers of the north (Tchnernov 1989; Zarins 1989).
The early history of human-bactrian interaction is poorly understood at present. This is partly because of a limited amount of archaeological investigation of central Asian sites and partly because of the inaccessibility of most Russian and Chinese documents to outside researchers. Although evidence for the use of bactrian camels in Neolithic China is practically nonexistent (because few animal bones were ever saved or studied), an exception is one camel bone from a site near Lake Burkol in the northeastern part of Xinjiang Province; this bone has been radiocarbondated to 3000 B.C. (Olsen 1988). Rock art from northern China and Inner Mongolia also attests to the presence of bactrians; however, dates for this art are highly speculative. Not until the Zhou Dynasty (c. 1100-771 B.C.) do Chinese literary sources confirm that bactrian camels were domesticated and employed as beasts of burden (Olsen 1988).
Early evidence for the presence of camels on the Iranian plateau is found at the site of Shar-i Sokhta (Compagnoni and Tosi 1978), where bones, dung (contained in a ceramic jar), and hair (woven into a piece of fabric), dating from roughly 2600 B.C., were found. These discoveries suggest that people were already utilizing several valuable resources from camels that presumably lived near the site. Other finds indicate that camels in the Indus Valley at the site of Mohenjo-daro by 2300 B.C. (Meadow 1984) were bactrians. A pottery shard from a contemporary site on the Iranian plateau depicted a bactrian, and no images of dromedaries have been found from this period (Compagnoni and Tosi 1978). However, there is no consensus on whether the bones from these areas are those of dromedaries or bactrians (Compagnoni and Tosi 1978; Meadow 1984; Wapnish 1984), largely because there is evidence of extensive trading between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran by the first half of the third millennium B.C. (Hoch 1979), and dromedaries could have been introduced to the Iranian sites from Arabia the trading network.
Domestication as Beasts of Burden
The distribution of camel bones at Tell Jemmeh, an urban site in southern Israel, may reveal when and why camels finally became an important domestic animal across southwestern Asia. Their bones are absent from the earliest levels of this site—the Chalcolithic (c. 3200 B.C.) and Middle Bronze II (c. 1650-1550 B.C.) (Wapnish 1981), with the first deposits of camel remains dating from between approximately 1400 and 800 B.C. But over this 600-year period, only 7 camel bones were left behind to be recovered. Eight more showed up for the following century, when the Assyrians began to exert their influence at the site through military campaigns, and 40 bones were deposited between 675 and 600 B.C.—a 75-year period that corresponds to the city’s association with the Assyrian invasions of Egypt. Then, from the beginning of the sixth century B.C. until occupation of the site ended at around 200 B.C., over 273 camel bones were left behind. These last four centuries witnessed periods of political instability as first neo-Babylonians, then Persians, and finally Alexander the Great took control of the site.
The question of why camel remains steadily increased in this urban center—if it was well supplied with meat from domestic cattle, donkeys, sheep, goats, pigs, and wild game—may be answered by the fact that camels found increasing economic and political importance as beasts of burden. The long-distance trade in incense and spices from southern Arabia to the Levant and beyond had become lucrative. Empires wanted to control and profit from this trade but needed to be able to supply and move troops in these arid regions. Both enterprises depended on the camel’s unique ability to haul heavy loads over long distances while consuming little water, and a whole economy grew up around this ability (Wapnish 1981). Archaeological investigations at two other sites in the region also support this interpretation. Camel bones from Wadi Arabah No. 2 and Timna, two copper-production sites (1350-1150 B.C.), indicate that camels were used to transport this valuable product to urban markets (Rothenberg 1972; Zarins 1989).
At the site of Tal-e Malyan, in present-day Iran, a similar pattern of camel introduction is evident. Although the site was occupied from at least 3400 B.C. and has yielded thousands of animal bones, those of camels do not appear until the Middle Elamite period (1600-1000 B.C.) (Zeder 1984). Regional political instability may have led to the city’s decline during these centuries, encouraging people to abandon their urban lifestyles for a more mobile pastoral existence. Camels introduced to the region by caravaneers figured prominently in the new pastoral system.
The Assyrians were instrumental in introducing camels to people across Southwest Asia, although not always peacefully, and their texts and monuments provide us with much of the available evidence about the historical use and distribution of dromedaries and bactrians. Some of the earliest written accounts of dromedaries come from an Assyrian cuneiform text, written between 1074 and 1057 B.C., which mentions that the animals were brought to Nineveh and exhibited with other exotic animals (Zarins 1989). Two bactrian camels are depicted on the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III of Assyria, which has been dated to 856 B.C. (Bulliet 1975).
All of the preceding tends to fit rather nicely with a synthetic hypothesis of the origins of dromedary pastoralism proposed by J. Zarins (1989). The camel was probably hunted for its meat in southern Arabia until around 2200 B.C., when dromedaries were domesticated and kept for milking purposes. However, they were not ridden or used as beasts of burden until around 1500 B.C.—about the time when saddles were developed for them. Afterward, camels were increasingly employed for riding and as pack animals for overland trade. After about 1000 B.C., saddle technology was improved, and camels became very important in warfare as mounts for armed soldiers (Bulliet 1975).
The origin of domesticated bactrians is more obscure. Presumably, the process of their domestication followed a similar path, although we do not know if they were domesticated earlier or around the same time as dromedaries. It is clear, however, that by the first millennium B.C., if not earlier, bactrians, too, were being used as pack animals (Bulliet 1975).
The archaeological record also plainly indicates that overland trade and warfare introduced camels to peoples who lived beyond the animals’ native deserts. Apparently, these people appreciated the camel’s ability to produce copious amounts of milk year-round and to carry large burdens over great distances in environments that were inhospitable to most other livestock. Moreover, the late appearance of indisputably domesticated camels suggests that they were incorporated into already-established pastoral lifestyles with sheep, goats, and cattle.
Our understanding of the origins of the use of camels as a food resource should improve as current efforts in identifying and studying the archaeological traces of early pastoralists are completed and published. In addition, ethnographic studies of modern camel pastoralists that attempt to quantify the costs and benefits of camel husbandry under specified ecological and social conditions would enhance our understanding of the origins of such practices. And finally, an ongoing study of camels’ genetic variability may someday help to trace the origins and subsequent dispersal of camels and the pastoral systems associated with camel husbandry.