The first time I met a camel was in the open desert. 

I was taken to visit a grazing herd amid the sandy reaches between Riyadh and Hail, Saudi Arabia. I kept a bit of distance, and an inquisitive camel (a female, I was told) approached at an ambling, padding lope. As she drew near, I fixed on the graceful arch of her light-tan neck, and then there was her head in front of me, sizing me up with features that could, if one were not tactful, provoke a comic response: the big, deep-brown eyes; the tiny, vertical ears; the oversized flapped nostrils; the upper split lip and droopy lower lip. I had barely noticed the hump, or the legs, which can seem disproportionately long and spindly, a bit like a giraffe’s. 

But I gave the camel her credit: she was both curious and confident. Her eyes were like a horse’s, but cast downward and, with three eyelids each and long, even tentacle-like eyelashes that shield against sun and sand, fascinating just to watch: Every once in a while her third, innermost eyelid would nick sideways like a windscreen wiper. This was the beginning of what has become a long appreciation of the camel’s adaptive wonders.

richard doughty
Three-way eyelids, long eyelashes and nostrils that can close completely are just a few of the adaptations that, over millions of years, have allowed these camels in eastern Saudi Arabia to continue browsing brush with seeming nonchalance during a sandstorm.

On another desert trip, I learned something about camel milk. It was spring, led by two Saudi camel enthusiasts. We drove off-road—seemingly aimlessly, for three days, over and around sand dunes—in search of camel herds. The Bedouin owners invariably welcomed us. We admired newborns and talked rains and grazing. We were served fresh camel milk, warm and foamy, in gourds and bowls. Each tasting yielded a distinct bouquet. Camel milk, like honey, our hosts explained, has what the French call terroir: the aromatic compounds in the wild plants the camels graze upon vary from area to area, and they are fat-soluble, which means they influence the flavor of the milk.

 

barry iverson / alamy
A camel owner stands with his son and camel near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Camels are so deeply central to cultures from North Africa to Central Asia that 19th-century orientalist Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall recorded 5,774 Arabic words related to camels. 

I also beheld the affinity between herder and camel as being truly both acute and individual. I once tested this by asking a herder who owned 53 camels to pick out the camel that left a single print in the sand. To me it looked like any of thousands. He scrutinized it and walked toward a camel that to me appeared otherwise indistinct—except for the tiny clip I had hidden on her when she made the print. “This rub,” he said, using the word for a six-year-old she-camel, “I call her Rima [gazelle-like]. Of course that footprint is hers. I love my camels and, like my family, I know every one of them.” As Bedouin have done as long as stories have been told, he had a name for every one of the females, each based on attributes real, fanciful or in between. 

Far less tranquil are city camel markets. About 10 years ago I escorted a group of international visitors to one of the largest in Saudi Arabia, on the northern outskirts of Riyadh. Hundreds of corrals sprawled over multiple square kilometers created a vast, multi-sensory immersion bolstered by banter from the owners, from hobbyists to specialist breeders. The visitors reveled in what was, for most of them, sheer novelty, but for Susan Hoebich the experience was to go further. In her it inspired a determination to acquire a breeding pair of thoroughbred Saudi dromedaries for her ranch in California. What followed I shall return to later.

Her quest, and all of my own experiences, involved Camelus dromedarius, that is, the dromedary, Arabian camel, or in more anatomical terms, the one-humped camel. Today only two other species of the genus Camelus exist, and both are two-humped: Camelus bactrianus, the Bactrian camel, native to the steppes of Central Asia, and Camelus ferus, the Wild Bactrian, which survives as an endangered species in pockets of Northwest China and the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. 

Combined, the global population of Camelus stands around 30 million head. More than 90 percent of these—some 27 million—are dromedaries. Nearly all the remaining three million are Bactrians, as there are but a scant 1,000 or so wild camels. (In South America, their smaller and very distant domesticated relations, llamas and alpacas, number about eight million.)

None of them—not one—lives today in its land of origin. Camels are the products of one of the greatest migrations the animal kingdom has ever known.

The camel brings to mind everything that is worthy in desert life. It has unlimited patience, and is the strongest yet most tender of animals.
—Saad Sowayan

Saad Sowayan, Ph.D., knows the Bedouin of northern Saudi Arabia and their camels well. A professor of anthropology at King Saud University in Riyadh, he has dedicated decades to the study of desert oral narratives, ethnography and the cultural legacies that have arisen amid and around al-Nafud al-Kabir, the great sand desert. 

“The camel brings to mind everything that is worthy in desert life. It has unlimited patience, and is the strongest yet most tender of animals,” he says. “Everything that is related to love and attachment, expressions, vocabulary and usages, are borrowed from the camel.”

Surrounded in his wood-paneled private library in Riyadh by books and archives of hundreds of hours of recordings with desert nomads, he proffers an example: The Arabic word hanin means “to yearn for something. It is borrowed from the distinctive sound that the camel makes when she yearns for her calf. The attachment of the camel to her calf is very strong. At the same time,” continues Sowayan, “the camel is the strongest, the most enduring and most patient, and so a worthy person is often compared to a camel. The heavy responsibilities of life or leadership—if one is a tribal chief—are likened to the camel’s burden carrying heavy loads.”

Sowayan’s recordings and studies demonstrate the intimate, symbiotic relationship between dromedaries and humans that has developed over the 4,000 years since the first camels were domesticated, probably somewhere in the southern Arabian Peninsula. With it has emerged an extraordinarily complex, ever-evolving and arcane corpus of Arabic dromedary terminology. This is not just individual words and metaphors. Sowayan explains that camels literally became the means of transmitting the oral tradition. Poems—many in the traditional Arabic form called qasida—typically include a lyrical dedication to the camel that carries both poet and verse over great distance. As a result, dromedaries pervade Arabic oral tradition, and poetry is freighted with imagery, metaphor, allegory, epithets and motifs that all refer to them.

Another observer and recorder of this ethnographic panoply was the early-20th-century Czech professor of Oriental studies, writer, illustrator, photographer and cartographer Alois Musil. He spent several years from 1914 exploring northern Arabia cataloging place names, vocabulary and history. He also transcribed Bedouin anecdotes, songs and poems. A chapter in his monumental book The Manners and Customs of the Rwala Bedouins, published in 1928 by the American Geographical Society, details semantics related to the camel. 

The Arabic generic term commonly used for camel is ibl. The word jamal, which is sometimes used colloquially, strictly refers to a male camel between six and 20 years old. Its three-consonant (trilateral) root structure (j-m-l) happens to be the same as the Arabic word of beauty, but there is no demonstrable linguistic link: Like “camel,” “jamal”—the two words nearly rhyme—might share distant roots in Phoenician, which gave Greek kamelos and Latin camelus. In Arabic a male or female riding camel is a dhalul. The overall most favored favored type of camel is naqah, a female riding camel aged above five years—generally regarded as the fastest. As a result, Arabic poetry frequently alludes to naqah in verses elaborate and glowing. 

As a young camel grows, a word exists for every stage—much as humans pass from infants to toddlers to teenagers, but in more detail: From suckling to its third year, there are five words, Musil noted. “In the fourth year it is called jid; in the fifth year, tini, which means, “changing [teeth],” as it grows new incisors. And so on, until at 20 years a she-camel becomes a fatir until death, generally at an age between 30 and 40 years.

As thorough as Musil was, the myriad facets of the daily life and lore of nomads stretched his ability to record every word and detail relating to camels. He delved into camel saddles, lost camels, their value and uses, watering, pasturing, camel songs, drinking from a camel’s paunch and camel ailments. He also observed and wrote on the Arabian horse, desert flora and fauna, the tent and encampment, diet, dress, poetry, marriage and other customs.

But when it came to listing the vast vocabulary Arabs have linked to the camel, an Austrian orientalist had already gone further a full century earlier. Joseph Freiherr von Hammer-Purgstall collected 5,774 words for dromedaries, their features and related paraphernalia. This included no fewer than 30 words referring to milk.

It was linguistics that helped convince camel conservationist John Hare in the early 1990s that the Camelus ferus, long thought to be either a feral variety of Bactrian or the forbear of the domesticated Bactrian, is in fact genetically distinct. Working in between the Taklamakan and Kuruktag deserts in China’s northwest, Hare discovered that Mongolian language, like Arabic, is rich in camel terminology. Some dialects, it turns out, share a specific word for the wild camel: havtagai, derived from havtag, which alludes to its flat head as a distinguishing feature. This suggests it has been long recognized as distinct from the domesticated Bactrian. In 2008, gene sequencing demonstrated conclusively that ferus is neither domestic Bactrian runaway nor Silk Road dropout, nor—most significantly—any progenitor of Bactrians.

This means that into extinction had marched not only the dromedary’s wild ancestor, but also that of the domesticated Bactrian. Their stories of origin and domestication are still unfolding, now more rapidly than ever, at dig sites and labs from the Middle East to Asia, Europe and the Americas. 

Indeed dromedary and Bactrian camels are the most recently domesticated of mammals. Dogs, cattle, sheep and goats were in the human fold by about 9,000 years ago; the horse and donkey were brought in 5,000 to 5,500 years ago. The camels were not in proven widespread use until 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, and overall, less is known about camels than any other domesticate.  The process likely began with hunting, before the camel’s subsequent capture and herding for milk as well as meat, followed by its eventual employment for hauling and, finally, riding. It is this last step that was to have such a profound impact on human history across the Middle East and Asia. 

yuan lei / courtesy john hare
“Be like a camel—carrying sweets but dining on thorns,” says a proverb from India evoking the grit of camels that made Silk Road trade possible across the vast barren deserts, steppes and mountains of Asia. Two-humped Bactrian camels were often used for that trade, and while most Bactrians are domesticated Camelus bactrianus, about 1,000 head of Camelus ferus, the critically endangered wild camel, remain in Northwest China and in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. Many live in a reserve established in 2003 near Lop Nur, China, where this photo was made. 

“Camels are the largest of domesticates and the most difficult of animals to manage and handle. You have to be strong to deal with them. An ill-tempered camel can swiftly and unpredictably kick out in all directions with each of its feet,” says Faisel al-Mathen, director of the Camel Research Center at King Faisal University in Hofuf, Saudi Arabia, which studies the conservation and improvement of camel genetics. Also relatively recent are the extinctions of the wild ancestors of dromedaries and Bactrians, especially when set against their vastly longer ancestral story. Biologically speaking, today’s camels belong to the family known as Camelidae, or camelids: two-toed, split-lipped plant-eaters (herbivores), of which members include not only domesticated llamas and alpacas but also the wild guanaco and vicuna of South America. 

The remains of the most distant camelid ancestor were discovered in 1848 by a fur trapper working in the White River Badlands of South Dakota in the central us. Paleontologists dated his find to 35 million years ago, in the Eocene Epoch, when that territory was largely forested. They named this herbivore Poebrotherium. About the size of a goat, it most closely resembled today’s llama, and it had evolved from a yet smaller creature the size of a large rabbit, Protylopus

About 34 million years ago, during the transition from the Eocene to the Oligocene Epoch, the climate in North America grew cooler and drier. Camelids began to diversify into gazelle-like stenomylines, snouted floridatragulines, short-legged miolabines, long-necked aepycamelines and the giraffe-like Oxydactylus. Topping the weight scales were Titanotylopus and Gigantocamelus. By 20 million years ago, some 13 genera of camels flourished throughout North America. By four million years ago, camelids were the largest even-toed creatures (artiodactyls) on the continent. 

Recent studies of dna samples from camelid bones imply that around 25 million years ago two camelid family tribes emerged: the Lamini, which eventually dispersed south to become today’s South American camelids, and the Camelini, which gradually moved north. 

Camels are both the most recently domesticated mammal and the least studied.

These conclusions build on discoveries such as the fossil find of Paracamelus, which has turned out to be the most direct ancient ancestor of both dromedaries and Bactrians. Found in 1913 in Canada’s Yukon by Klondike gold-rush prospectors, this discovery revealed that camelids had moved far to the north. 

“These goldmines are a real ‘gold mine’” for learning about the climate, geology, animals and plants that lived when North America was connected to Asia by land that now lies submerged under the Bering Strait, says Grant Zazula, head of paleontology for the Yukon Territorial Government. The “land bridge” first appeared some eight million years ago, and it remained until it was submerged again 14,500 years ago. Much remains unknown about the biological exchanges it facilitated (including, most notably, the human migrations that settled the Americas). 

“Camels are at the top of my wish list for ancient fossils right now,” says Zazula, who spends summers digging in the Klondike region. “They’re incredibly rare. I think there are about 50 bones known that have ever been found in Alaska or Yukon, and that’s in comparison to the tens of thousands of ice-age woolly mammoths and bison and horses.”

Even farther north, and east, from 2006 to 2009, a research team led by the Canadian Museum of Nature discovered 30 camel fragments on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. Scientists dated the remains to 3.5 million years, the mid-Pliocene Epoch, a global warm phase when the region was cloaked in boreal forest. Collagen fingerprinting, a cutting-edge science pioneered at the University of Manchester in England, confirmed that the bones belonged to a camelid.

“This is an important discovery because it provides the first evidence of camels living in the High Arctic,” explains Natalia Rybczynski, a paleontologist with the Canadian Museum of Nature who has led numerous Arctic field expeditions. The discovery not only extended the range of camels in North America north by about 1,200 kilometers, but also it suggested, she adds,  “the lineage that gave rise to modern camels may have been originally adapted to living in an Arctic forest environment.

“We now have a new fossil record to better understand camel evolution, since our research shows that the Paracamelus lineage inhabited northern North America for millions of years, and the simplest explanation for this pattern would be that Paracamelus originated there,” explains Rybczynski. “So perhaps some specializations seen in modern camels, such as their wide flat feet, large eyes and humps for fat may be adaptations derived from living in a polar environment.”

Additional Research Support: Nicholas J Czaplewski; Rick E. Otto; Lulu Skidmore

Wide, flat feet, large eyes and humps for fat may be adaptations derived from living in a polar environment.
—Natalia Rybczynski

So too the characteristic wide, split footpads now so useful for soft, sandy deserts would have been a no-less-useful adaptation to snow. And likewise even the camel’s iconic hump that stores fat (not water) was an adaptation to enduring a harsh winter. And those large eyes, so lauded by Bedouin poets and valued by camel-show judges, would have helped during six months of high-latitude darkness. The camel’s teeth, now able to chew through sharp thorns, would have been no less handy grazing the rough vegetation of the Arctic. 

On the western side of the land bridge, Paracamelus finds corroborate the hypothesis that it was the first of the Camelini to move into Asia, and that it is the ancestor of all camels today. These include discoveries in China, Russia, India and Kazakhstan, as well as Syria, Algeria, Italy and even as far west as Spain. 

As well as Paracamelus, at least four other genera of camels continued to survive in North America until they had become extinct on the continent, along with woolly mammoths and other large mammals, by around 13,000 years ago.

Disentangling the story of the camel’s migration from North America into Asia remains a puzzle that is gaining increased attention among scientists and archeologists. Pieces in the puzzle involve subsequent extinctions, the domestication episodes of at least two species and locations that include much of Asia, Arabia, Africa and parts of Europe, and calls for answers to the question, “one hump, or two?” 

In 2003 and 2005, Syrian and Swiss archeologists uncovered some extraordinarily large bones at the oasis of al-Kowm, a prehistoric “hot spot” midway between al-Raqqah and Palmyra. When confirmed as camelid remains, the bones demonstrated that giant camels were not restricted to North America. Named the Syrian camel (Camelus moreli), this species lived around 100,000 years ago, weighed around 1,000 kilograms and at three meters tall—more than twice the size of today’s camels—stood almost the size of an elephant.

julius csotonyi
Some 3.5 million years ago, warmer climate allowed rich, boreal forests to flourish near the Arctic Circle, where Paracamelus fossil bones have been found in Canada’s Yukon. It may have been here that camelids developed their fat-storing humps and feet for walking over snow. 

It was not just its enormous size that astonished scientists, explains paleolithic archeologist Jean-Marie Le Tensorer of the University of Basel, Switzerland. Until this discovery, no one knew “that the dromedary was present in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago.”

In addition to pushing the existence of camelids back 90,000 years, the layering of the finds points to a sustained population over thousands of years. Along with the giant camels, archeologists also uncovered remains of smaller camel species, as well as gazelle, oryx, buffalo, rhinoceros, early horses (equids) and a few carnivores. Human remains and tools uncovered nearby hint at hunting.

Camels, writes Le Tensorer, are “charismatic species of domestic large mammals, but their anatomy, history and evolution are poorly known. We know that the family Camelidae colonized Eurasia from North America using the land bridge across what are now the Bering Strait between six and seven million years ago and that they included some large-sized forms of the poorly defined genus Paracamelus.”

But only a few studies have tried to describe and compare the bone structures of Bactrians and dromedaries, and there remain many gaps in knowledge regarding domestication, the precise origins of the genus Camelus, and more. 

In addition to the recent conclusion that the wild camel is from a distinct but as-yet-uncertain lineage, genome sequencing also suggests that the split between dromedary and Bactrian may have its origins in North America too. This further suggests that single-humped camelids may have arrived in Asia before two-humped ones. Genetic diversity might argue for this too: There are around 90 recognized breeds of dromedary compared with just 14 Bactrian breeds.

martin lipman / canadian museum of nature (2)
Natalia Rybczynski, a paleontologist at the Canadian Museum of Nature, collects a fossil of the High Arctic camel during a 2008 field expedition to the Fyles Leaf Bed site on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. Lower: In her lab, Rybczynski has laid out some 30 limb-bone fossil fragments of the High Arctic camel for further study.

Complicating the story further is the vexing matter of crossbreeding. This has led to two false trails, one due to fact and another due to a myth based on what turned out to be false premises. Crossbreeding dromedaries and Bactrians produces a single-humped hybrid that matures faster, produces more milk and is larger and stronger than either purebred parent. However, it is more susceptible to disease, and continued interbreeding with hybrids degenerates the lineage. As a result, the species are not herded together, but rather the two have been brought together for selective improvement, generally using male Bactrians and female dromedaries, for thousands of years.

Richard Bulliet, professor emeritus at Columbia University and a specialist in Middle East history, considers that the first deliberate crossbreeding likely took place somewhere between northern Arabia and the Tigris-Euphrates region sometime between 250 bce and 224 ce. “Someone—most likely merchants connected with Arab camel breeders—thought to cross the two species and discovered that the hybrid was an ideal pack animal,” he wrote in his seminal The Camel and the Wheel, which examines camel domestication and the consequences of the rise of camel-breeding nomads. 

A hybrid superior to either of its thoroughbred parents in load-carrying capacity could not help to be in demand. By the Islamic period, people were using two-humped camels in Iran and Afghanistan primarily as breeding stock for hybrids. Farther west, Ottoman armies depended on single-humped hybrids as pack animals. Hybrid breeding never took hold in the Arabian Peninsula, however, as camel-herding nomads there fiercely protected the pedigree of their dromedaries. Over time a wide range of some 90 thoroughbred breeds developed. 

Hybrid breeding also gave birth to the belief that dromedaries originated from Bactrians. Until World War ii, the most northerly breeding herd of dromedaries was in Italy, near Pisa. It owed its origins to a gift of 20 camels—among other animals—given in 1622 from the Bey of Tunis to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. A series of widely cited 19th-century veterinary and anatomical studies at the grand duke’s estate revealed the presence of a vestigial second hump in both adult and fetal dromedaries. This lead to the conclusion that dromedaries were a variant of Bactrians.

It was not until 2010 that research disproved this. Examination of thoroughbred dromedaries at the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai showed no such features. Although the Italian conclusions were false, the anatomical findings were not erroneous: Unbeknowst to the examiners, the Italian herd had a significant hybrid ancestry, and this was what had produced the trace second hump. 

Someone—most likely merchants connected with Arab camel breeders—thought to cross the two species and discovered that the hybrid was an ideal pack animal.
—Richard Bulliet

Recent paleogenetic studies have led scientists to propose that the Bactrian’s domestication, which propelled cultural and economic development across the steppelands of Central Asia and, subsequently, opened up the Silk Roads extending to the fringes of Europe, occurred earlier than previously believed, about 5,000 years ago  around what are now the border between Turkmenistan and Iran. 

Domestication of the dromedary likely occurred a thousand or more years later, but the exact period remains uncertain. The dromedary domestication also opened up a network for trade, mainly via the trans-Arabian incense routes and, in North Africa, the trans-Saharan routes. Hans-Peter Uerpmann, former professor of archeobiology at the University of Tübingen, excavated the area of Mleiha in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates (uae), where camel bones have yielded insights into the transition from wild to domesticated. Both the wild dromedary species and the wild Bactrian one were larger than the subsequently domesticated animals.

Uerpmann reasons that, according to the available evidence, dromedary domestication “happened somewhere in Arabia during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age some 3,000 years ago.” The evidence comes from several archeological sites in the uae dating back further, where remains of hunted wild camels have been found. Some are on the coast: It appears that wild camels, like their descendants, may have been attracted to grazing on mangrove trees. 

Scientists also hope for fossil remains to come to light along the largely unexplored Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia, as well as in the many thousands of paleolakes that pepper the country, some of which are being surveyed and excavated.

“Many open questions remain,” says Pamela Burger, a conservation geneticist at the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology at Vetmeduni Vienna. “We have managed to turn the wild dromedary into a domesticate, but we still don’t know how and where domestication began, and what effect it has had on today’s animals.”

Burger explains the challenges she and other scientists face. Genetic studies for camels lag significantly behind those for horses. “Equid finds are often from permafrost zones, and there is far more genetic material available,” she says. “But camel remains are far fewer and invariably are found in hotter regions” where ultraviolet and heat exposure break down dna. “It’s not a question of knowledge or techniques. It is more the issue of resourcing studies and obtaining good specimens,” says Burger. 

hatim oweida
Camels line up for milking at a dairy farm in Dubai. Consumed by Bedouin for ages, camel milk is now finding its way to grocery shelves. With less fat than cow milk, it is lactose-free and high in iron, Vitamin C and protein. 

Even so, Burger and her team have made discoveries. For example, during the process of domestication, humans bred the domesticated animals by selecting those parts of the genotype that brought the most benefits and, over time, this has reduced genetic diversity. However, this has not been the case with the dromedary, which continues to exhibit enormous genetic diversity. This makes camels unique among domesticated animals.

Using samples from more than 1,000 dromedaries that they have compared to archeological samples, Burger and her team concluded that the dromedary’s genetic diversity was a consequence of its extensive use as a transport animal. The to-and-fro over long distances on caravans brought dromedary populations into contact with each other. Over centuries, this produced a genetic flow that furthered diversity. By contrast, farm animals such as cows, sheep and chickens have seen erosion of their genetic resources.

This knowledge is opening the door to new research on optimum traits that can further aid in selective breeding for meat and milk production on mass-marketing scales. (See sidebar, above) It also may help improve racing and show stock. Like other domesticated species, the camel, too, is rapidly moving into an era in which its relationship to humans is ever more deliberately and scientifically managed. It has achieved remarkable and extensive adaptations, and its symbiosis with nomads has inspired a multitude of cultures. In so doing, the camel has also achieved the distinction of being a domesticated animal that, when compared among other species, offers and provides humans uses of unparalleled variety. These include food through milk and meat, and resources such as wool, fur, skin and manure, as well as services as long-distance mounts, long-haul pack animals, patient agricultural partners and lifters of water at wells. 

tor eigeland
Camels travel through a sand storm in the Rub' al-Khali desert of Saudi Arabia.

Today, camels and their human companions also give us enjoyment and entertainment through racing and cultural activities such as camel festivals. They are now providing a foundation for increased academic and scientific attention through organizations such as the International Society of Camelid Research and Development, the International Camel Consortium for Genetic Improvement and Conservation, and the Camel Research Center at King Faisal University. All promote research and fieldwork, conferences and information exchanges in the growing field of “camelology.” “While some studies might be focused on improving camels for racing and their looks, our attention is more on improving strains for productive uses,” says Faisal al-Mathen of the Camel Research Center. His colleagues, he continues, are collaborating with the University of Inner Mongolia to find “new camel products from milk, fat for cosmetics as well as immune studies.” 

Susan Hoebich, who was so enraptured by the camels she saw in the market in Riyadh that she set out to secure a thoroughbred pair for her California ranch, never was able to realize her dream. Restrictions on animal imports to the us from the Middle East thwarted her. She acquiesced to the purchase of a pair locally born. Their pedigree? Australia—which imported its first dromedaries in the 19th century. 

The great migration continues.