A Brief History of Camels

The camel is a large, strong desert animal. Camels can travel great distances across hot, dry deserts with little food or water. They walk easily on soft sand where trucks would get stuck, and carry people and heavy loads to places that have no roads. Camels also serve the people of the desert in many other ways.

The camel carries its own built-in food supply on its back in the form of a hump. The hump is a large lump of fat that provides energy if food is hard to find.

There are two chief kinds of camels: (1) the Arabian camel, also called dromedary, which has one hump, and (2) the Bactrian camel, which has two humps. In the past, hybrids (crossbreeds) of the two species were used widely in Asia. These hybrid camels had one extra-long hump and were larger and stronger than either of their parents.

Camels have been domestic animals for thousands of years. Arabian camels may once have lived wild in Arabia, but none of them live in the wild today. There are several million Arabian camels, and most of them live with the desert people of Africa and Asia. The first Bactrian camels probably lived in Mongolia and in Turkestan, which was called Bactria in ancient times. A few hundred wild Bactrian camels may still roam in some parts of Mongolia, and over a million domesticated ones live in Asia.

Scientists believe that members of the camel family lived in North America at least 40 million years ago. Before the Ice Age, camels had developed into a distinct species and had moved westward across Alaska to western Asia. In Asia, two groups separated and gradually became the two chief kinds of camels known today. Meanwhile, smaller members of the camel family had moved southward from North to South America. Today, four members of the camel family live in South America: (1) alpacas, (2) guanacos, (3) llamas, and (4) vicunas. By the time Europeans went to North America, no members of the camel family had lived there for many thousands of years. No one knows why they disappeared.

The first dromedary (one-humped) camel was imported into Australia in 1840. This ill-fated animal took part in an expedition into the northern part of South Australia. It was destroyed after accidentally causing its owner’s death. Later, large numbers of camels were imported into Australia for exploration and station work in the arid interior. About 250,000 camels still roam wild in the central Australian deserts.