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Abraham journeys into the Land of Canaan by camel in a 19th-century Bible illustration.


Domesticated Camels Came to Israel in 930 B.C., Centuries Later Than Bible Says

The camels appear suddenly, following major changes in copper production throughout the region.

Newly published research by two archaeologists at Tel Aviv University in Israel shows that camels weren't domesticated in the eastern Mediterranean until the 10th century B.C.—several centuries after the time they appear in the Bible.

While there are conflicting theories about when the Bible was composed, the recent research suggests it was written much later than the events it describes. This supports earlier studies that have challenged the Bible's veracity as a historic document.

The biblical angle wasn't the focus of the recent research, though, just an after-the-fact observation.

The study, published late last year in Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, concerned the introduction of domesticated camels at copper smelting sites in Israel's Aravah Valley.

The dromedary, or one-humped camel that so many tourists picture when they think of the Middle East, is mentioned in the Bible 47 times. Stories about the Jewish patriarchs—Abraham, Joseph, and Jacob—include descriptions of camels as domesticated animals. For example, Genesis 24:11 says, "And he made his camels to kneel down without the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water."

Historians believe these stories took place between 2000 and 1500 B.C., based on clues such as passages from Genesis, archaeological information from the site of the great Sumerian city of Ur (located in modern Iraq), and an archive of clay tablets found at the site of Mari (in modern Syria).

Using radiocarbon dating and evidence unearthed in excavations, Israeli archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen have pegged the arrival of domesticated camels in this part of the world—known to scholars as the Levant—to a much later era. They were also able to more precisely pinpoint the time span when that arrival occurred.

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In a part of Israel that borders the Negev and Judean deserts, Bedouins bring camels to a cultural festival.

"By analyzing archaeological evidence from the copper production sites of the Aravah Valley, we were able to estimate the date of this event in terms of decades rather than centuries," Ben-Yosef said in a press release put out by Tel Aviv University last week.

The study was able to "narrow down the range in which domesticated camels were introduced to 30 years," said Sapir-Hen, an archaeozoologist who studies the role of animals in ancient human culture, in a phone interview. It's "sometime between 930 and 900 B.C."

Copper and Camels

The Aravah Valley marks the Israeli-Jordanian border as it runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. This area was a center of copper production beginning as early as the 14th century B.C. and ending in the late 9th century B.C.

Archaeologists have identified an interesting pattern in their studies of animal remains from sites in this valley. Large quantities of camel bones appear only in the levels dated from the last third of the 10th century through the 9th century B.C.

The camels appear suddenly, following major changes in copper production throughout the region.

This period coincides with the invasion of Egyptian king Sheshonq I—known in the Bible as Shishak-in 925 B.C.

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 Arabian Peninsula borders the Aravah Valley, which would have been a logical gateway for camels into the Levant. In fact, Ben-Yosef and Sapir-Hen believe that the domesticated camels buried at sites in the Aravah Valley may have been among the first such creatures to leave Arabia.

Archaeological excavations in the Aravah Valley have turned up bones of camels from earlier periods, perhaps even before the start of the Neolithic (about 9,700 B.C.), but those were probably wild animals that ran free, never burdened with the weight of copper ingots on their back.