The domestication of camels

New research suggests domesticated camels arrived in the region now known as Israel between 930 and 900 BCE. What interested me about this result were two things: how the researchers narrowed the range of dates to just 30 years and the implications of this finding for people who treat the Bible as history book.

As to the first, it appears that the bones of camels started appearing in that region around the time of major advances in copper production there. This substantiates earlier work that suggested that camels were only domesticated in the first millennium BCE.

Archaeologists now wonder if the events are connected. After Egypt conquered the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, it may have reorganized the copper business and introduced camels as a more efficient means of transport than the donkeys and mules used previously.

This would have had huge economic and social consequences for the Levant, opening it to parts of the world that lay beyond vast deserts, to which it had never before been connected.

Camels were probably first domesticated in the Arabian Peninsula in the early first millennium B.C. Archaeologists base this date on mortality profiles of excavated skeletons, the gender of the animals, and lesions on leg bones that would have resulted from the repetitive stress of working as pack animals.

The problem for people who view the stories in the Bible as representing actual historical events is that those stories are shot through with people using camels for transport and as symbols of their wealth, going all the way back to Abraham whom, according to the biblical chronology, was chatted with god as far back as 1921 BCE. This supports the idea that almost all the stories in the Old Testament were written centuries later, with the writers simply assuming that the things they were familiar with, such as domesticated camels, had been around for a long time.


  1. Ed says

    So the Bible writers were like Tolkien; writing stories about a mythical pre-history set in the distant past, but keeping the thing they couldn’t imagine doing without (in their case camels, in his case pipe smoking, coffee and tea).

  2. AMM says

    I think it’s a mistake to say that the Bible stories were “written” in the same sense as Lord of the Rings
    The stories, at least those that pre-date writing, would have been tales passed on orally. They would have started out as “eyewitness” accounts (with all the inaccuracies thereof) and with each retelling, they would change. (If you’ve ever seen a good storyteller in action, you know that a story is never told the same way twice.) FWIW, Genesis has a number of examples of several variants of the same story being included as if they were different events.
    If you imagine a storyteller by the fireside telling the story of the Great Ancestor travelling hundreds of miles, of course they’re going to assume that he used camels, just as most people nowadays do. You mean there was a time when people didn’t have camels. (You mean, there was a time when people didn’t carry phones around in their pockets??)

  3. corwyn says

    They would have started out as “eyewitness” accounts…

    On what evidence do you base this assertion?

  4. anat says

    930-900 BCE is a few centuries earlier than the date Finkelstein’s proposal in The Bible Unearthed for the appearance of camel trading caravans in the Levant.

  5. Ed says


    I agree. It was an imperfect ,tongue partially in cheek analogy. But I find it fascinating how much people project backward from their time when writing about the past in terms of both artifacts and values. And yes, the fact that the writings started as transcriptions of anonymous, collective oral traditions complicates matters further.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    I believe the consensus among Bible scholars is that the OT was largely an oral tradition until the Babylonian Exile (597-538 BC). The priests in exile started writing the stories down then in order too keep the faith alive. So basically, any stories set earlier than the late 6th century BC vary from highly embroidered to outright fantasy.

  7. doublereed says

    I thought the Old Testament was always known to have been changed and written by cabals of early rabbis. The bible doesn’t say it was written by God. So obviously people had to write and compile it at some point.

  8. Pen says

    It is a really interesting finding but it will be ignored by Bible literalists along with the giant mound of other data contradicting Bible literalism including all the data concerning human habitation of the area long before the creation story could possibly have occurred.

  9. Nick Gotts says

    <blockquote.I thought the Old Testament was always known to have been changed and written by cabals of early rabbis. – doublereed

    Alternatively, maybe the OT was written by rabbles of camels: naturally, they’d put themselves in the story as early as possible!

  10. anat says

    doublereed, the Jewish tradition is that Genesis to Deuteronomy (with the possible exceptions of the last few verses) were written by Moses, Joshua (and possibly the last few verses of Deuteronomy) by Joshua, Judges and parts of Samuel by Samuel, the majority of Samuel and Kings as well as Lamentations by Jeremiah (or Baruch, his scribe), the various named prophetic books by the title prophet, Psalms by David, Proverbs, Songs of Solomon and Ecclesiastes by Solomon. Job was contested (there was a debate about whether he existed or was entirely a character of fable). But it doesn’t take a very observant reading to notice the occasional comments showing some stories were written a long time after the time in which the story is set – lines saying things like ‘in those times X was called Y’ For example 1Samuel 9:9 “Beforetime in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, thus he said: ‘Come and let us go to the seer’; for he that is now called a prophet was beforetime called a seer.– “

  11. moarscienceplz says

    The bible doesn’t say it was written by God. So obviously people had to write and compile it at some point.

    Yes, but the Bible literalists insist these people were inspired by God to write truthfully. So, no mistakes possible. Thus Ken Ham has to place dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark because Genesis says every kind of animal was on board, and I am sure he will insist the archaeologists are wrong or lying about no early camel domestication.

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