Dromedaries in Antiquity: Iberia and Beyond

By Muniz, Arturo Morales; Riquelme, Jose A. et al. | Antiquity, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Dromedaries in Antiquity: Iberia and Beyond


Muniz, Arturo Morales, Riquelme, Jose A., Lettow-Vorbeck, Corina Liesau von, Antiquity


The enigmatic dromedary

The camel is an enigmatic domestic species; its systematic status (and, accordingly, its nomenclature) is unclear (Kohler 1981; Mason 1984).(1) Though the Arabian peninsula is thought the likely origin of the domestic dromedary, neither the precise location - central Arabia for Walz (1956), Zeuner (1963) and Epstein (1971); southern Arabia for Bulliet (1975) - nor the dates - around 3000 BC by Mason (1984), never prior to 1000 BC according to Zarins (1978) - are agreed. A lack of discriminating osteological characters between wild (now extinct) and domestic stock forces archaeozoologists to rely on circumstantial evidence (e.g. Hoch 1979). The same ambiguity is found in texts. Since both dromedaries and Bactrian camels are quite similar anatomically and have been used for the same purposes, documentary sources speak about Camellus, Camelus and Dromas without specifying which animal they refer to (Toynbee 1973; Kohler 1981). Some documents apply the term Dromedarius to the rider! (Balil 1986).

This same uncertainty applies to the dromedary's dispersal to Africa, an event linked to its physiological peculiarities and endurance in arid environments (Ripinsky 1975; Wilson 1984). The dromedary seems almost unknown in ancient Egypt (prior to 1100 BC), evidence maybe that the cultivated delta of the Nile was a biological barrier to a desert animal. Bulliet (1975) therefore prefers a route across the Red Sea to the Sudan, affording a southern aspect to the dromedary's spread into northwest Africa via the south Saharan highlands in place of a dispersal along the agricultural northern fringe of the desert from Libya to Morocco (Zeuner 1963: 354). Rowley-Conwy (1988) reports a calibrated radiocarbon date for camel dung from Qasr Ibrim, Lower Nubia, of 1040-770 BC. The beast was unknown to the Carthaginians, indicating a very recent introduction into northwest Africa (Schauenburg 1955-6). Camel remains have been identified from the Senegalese Iron Age in contexts dating to AD 250-400 (Mcintosh et al. 1992).

Some authors would have the domestic dromedary first introduced into northwest Africa, where the Romans, mainly under Septimius Severus (193-211 AD), moved Syrian troops to fight nomads from the interior (Guey 1939). One way or the other, by or in Roman times the dromedary was an established beast across northern Africa and shifted in function from a pack to a draught animal.

Osteological evidence shows the camel entered Europe during the Roman period (Balil 1986; Zeuner 1963). Most remains, in contexts with military connotations (castella) in central Europe, testify to the import of a few individuals at a time (Keller 1910; 1919; Herscheler & Kuhn 1949; Berger & Thenius 1951; Boessneck 1964; Schmidt-Pauly 1980). Occasionally, animals might have been imported for public games. We learn from Suetonius that Nero (AD 54-68) was fond of camel races in the circus (Schauenburg 1955-6); these dromedaries should have been fast, of the mehari breed or equivalent. Camel bones were retrieved in the theatre of Vindonissa, northern Switzerland, 1st century AD (Zeuner 1963). Remains of camels in the castellum Vemania have been thought direct imports from Africa as a result of military campaigns (Piehler 1976).

Dromedaries in Iberia: an incipient archaeozoological record

Recent finds in Roman and medieval sites enlarge documentary references to dromedaries in the Iberian peninsula that include a Roman mosaic [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] and medieval texts, both Christian and Muslim.

Dromedary bones from Roman sites

Four bones have been recorded on Roman settlements [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED] (one could add a fragmented metapodial from Castulo (Jaen), which we cannot certify since it was never published):

Conimbriga: city of northern Portugal

Cardoso (in press) describes the proximal portion of a metacarpal [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 3 OMITTED] which bears no humanly derived marks (for measurements of these and the other bones, see TABLE 1). …

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