Hump Stump Solved: Camels Arrived in Region Much Later Than Biblical Reference

Nir Hasson
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Nir Hasson

In Genesis 32, a few verses after Jacob’s dramatic meeting with the angels is described, we learn that he sent gifts to his brother Esau. Along with “two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats,” there are “thirty milch camels and their colts.” The mention of camels in Genesis – here and in the Abraham and Joseph sagas – is an anachronism well known to the science of archaeology. It is, by the same token, one of the decisive proofs that the Bible was written hundreds of years after the events it narrates. All the archaeological evidence suggests that, even if there were historical characters named Jacob and Esau, they were not familiar with the humped animal, or at least not as a pack animal. The reason is that in the period of the patriarchs, there were no domesticated camels in the Land of Israel or the surrounding region.

A study based on archaeological excavations in Israel’s Timna Valley, and in Wadi Finan in Jordan, reinforces the theory that the camel was not adopted in this country until about 930 BCE – 300 years later than previously thought.

The study, which was conducted by Dr. Lidar Sapir-Hen and Dr. Erez Ben-Yosef, suggests that the oldest camel bones found in Israel are those from the copper mines in Timna, which lies north of today’s Eilat. An examination of the layers in which the bones were found, and no less important, of the layers in which no bones were found, shows that the camel was first introduced into the southern Levant in the last third of the 10th century BCE. – many hundreds of years after the story of the patriarchs would have taken place, and decades after the Kingdom of David, in terms of the biblical timetable, around 1930 BCE. Radiocarbon dating supports this.

There is also a good chance, the researchers think, that among these bones are the remains of the first camel that served man outside the Arabian Peninsula, where the dromedary was domesticated a few centuries earlier.

Only a few camel bones had been found in Israel from prior to this period, and they almost certainly belonged to wild camels that were hunted and eaten, rather than pack animals. The introduction of camels to the Timna area, beyond Arabia, accompanied an extensive reform of the copper production processes at the site. This development was probably linked to the military campaign waged by Pharaoh Shoshenq I in the area at this time, and the subordination of the mines to Egyptian control. The camels did not arrive from Egypt; however, the animal was adopted there in an even later era.

Sapir-Hen is an archaeozoologist, someone who studies the place of animals in ancient human culture. In regard to the Negev camels, she can distinguish not only the animals’ sex and age but also whether they were domesticated or wild. For example, if a camel carried heavy loads, it would have left signs in the leg bones that would be visible even 3,000 years later. The demographic distribution of the bones, too, shows that these were not camels that were hunted, as there are many more males than females and many more adults than young camels. That is consistent with camel convoys, where male camels were preferred due to their strength.

Until the appearance of the camel in the Arava, the local human population made do with the more veteran pack animals – donkeys and mules. The camel opened up new economic possibilities. “It is clear to us that without the camel there are things that couldn’t have worked, such as the perfume trade with Arabia,” says Ben-Yosef, who has headed a Tel Aviv University archaeological dig at Timna for the past several years.

“It’s unlikely that mules could have traversed the distance from one desert oasis to the next,” he adds. “The camel accelerated the development of these trade routes, and we see, in fact, that these routes emerge in the ninth century BCE, after the appearance of the camel.” The perfume trade with the East, which was made possible thanks to the camel, became an important element in the local economy and continued successively for more than 1,500 years.

The arrival of the camel opened up new economic possibilities. Credit: Erez Ben-Yosef
Credit: Erez Ben-Yosef

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