SILK ROAD AND BACTRIAN CAMELS
camel outside the gates of old Beijing Bactrian camels were commonly used on the Silk Road to carry goods. They could be employed in high mountains, cold steppes and inhospitable deserts. Camels are one of the most useful animals to humans. Particularly in the desert areas of the Middle East and the steppes of Central Asia, they are used primarily as pack animals but also are useful as mounts and as sources of milk, meat and wool.
Camels are mentioned in the Koran and regarded by Bedouin as “God’s gift.” In the desert some people worry more about the well-being of their camels than they do of their own children. But camels are not necessarily pleasant animals. They make screechy noises, have smelly bodies and always seem to be dozing off or refusing to cooperate but are the fastest animals in the desert and steppes, and have incredible endurance.
Good Websites and Sources on the Silk Road: Silk Road Seattle washington.edu/silkroad ; Silk Road Foundation silk-road.com ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road History ess.uci.edu ; Silk Road Atlas depts.washington.edu ; History of Silk Road ess.uci.edu ; Old World Trade Routes ciolek.com ; Travel Photos studyrussian.com ; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project silkroadproject.org ; Silk Road Society travelthesilkroad.org ; Silk Road Travelerssilk-road.com ; International Dunhuang Project idp.bl.uk ; Camel Trains in the Desert chinavista.com ; China Page chinapage.org ; Ancient China Life Ancient China Life Books: The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002). Television show: Silk Road 2005, a 10-episode production by China's CCTV and Japan's NHK, with music by Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. The original series was shown in 1980s.
Links in this Website: SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; MARITIME SILK ROAD factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CARAVANS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD CAMELS factsanddetails.com ; SILK ROAD HISTORY AND EXPLORERS factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO factsanddetails.com ; MARCO POLO IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; CHINESE EXPLORATION AND ZHENG HE factsanddetails.com ; EARLY EUROPEANS IN CHINA factsanddetails.com ; SILK IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China
Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Marco Polo Odyssesy nationalgeographic.com ; Footsteps of Marco Polo metmuseum.org ; Open Directory Project dmoz.org ; Works by Marco Polo gutenberg.org ; Internet Movie Database imdb.com ; Marco Polo and his Travels silk-road.com ; Marco Polo in China easia.columbia.edu ;
Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese ExplorationWikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique mondediplo.com ; Zheng He’s Voyages international.ucla.edu ; Zheng He muslimheritage.com ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 1421.tv ; Asia Recipe asiarecipe.com ; China Page chinapage.com ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci faculty.fairfield.edu ; Matteo Ricci international.ucla.edu
Types of Camels
Bactrians camel Bactrian camels are hairy double humped animals. Found primarily in Central and East Asia, they are adapted for cold regions and have reddish brown or black hair and have relatively thin, short legs, and heavy bodies. Their calloused feet can handle ice, rocks and snow. They can drink salt water and swim for short distances. Their hair may reach a length of foot in winter. Wild Bactrian camels are still found in China and Mongolia.
Dromedary or Arabian camels are short-haired single humped animals. Found primarily in Africa, the Middle East and West Asia, they are adapted for hot regions. They have long spindly legs and relatively thin bodies and soft padded feet adapted for walking in the desert. Most are light brown. There are snow white camels. Dromedary comes from the Greek word for "running." It was first used to describe thoroughbred racing camels but later came to mean any one-humped camel. There are no wild dromedaries, although some have escaped and live as feral animals.
Bukht camels, a hybrid of dromedary and Bactrian camels, were bred especially for caravan work. Resembling dromedary camels with a saddle-like not on their single hump, they originated around the 2nd century B.C. and endured until the 16th century, when the were made obsolete by sea routes. A few bukht camels can be found in Kazakhstan.
Sleek, white mughathir camels are regarded as the finest ones. Skewbald (brown-and-white) camels have blue eyes and are often deaf. They are said to have originated from Somalia.
History of Camels
The first camels lived in North America millions of years ago. They seemed to have evolved from small rabbit-size creatures that first appeared around 40 to 50 million years ago. Camels migrated to Asia across the Bering Strait about three million years ago and evolved into the creatures we know today. Camels in North America died out but not before giving rise to camel-like alpacas, guanacos, llamas and vicuñas
All camels are believed to have evolved from two-humped bactrian camels indigenous to Central Asia. The one-humped dromedaries of the Middle East ate believed to have evolved from them although their origin is still somewhat of a mystery..
The Bactrian camel is believed to have been domesticated in Central Asia 5,000 years ago. The Dromedary camel is believed to have been domesticated in Arabia 5,000 years ago. They may have been first been raised for milking purposes.
Small clay figurines of camels from North Yemen, dated to 1000 B.C. are some of earliest depictions of the animals. Bas reliefs from 650 B.C. show Assyrian archers shooting at Arabs from the back of a camel. Camels came to Africa from Asia about 500 B.C.
young wild Bactrian camel Bactrian camels are camels with two humps and two coats f hair. Widely domesticated and capable of carrying 600 pounds, they are native to Central Asia, where a few wild ones still live, and stand six feet at the hump, can weigh half a ton and seem no worse for wear when temperatures drop to -20°F. The fact they can endure extreme hot and cold and travel long periods of time without water has made them ideal caravan animals.
Bactrian camels can go a week without water and a month without food. A thirsty camel can drink 25 to 30 gallons of water at one go. For protections against sandstorms, Bactrian camels have two sets of eyelids and eyelashes. The extra eyelids can wipe sand like windshield wipers. Their nostrils that can shrink to a narrow slit to keep out blowing sand. Bactrian camels slobber a lot when they get horny (See Camel wrestling).
The humps store energy in the form of fat and can reach a height of 18 inches and individually hold as much as 100 pounds. A camel can survive for weeks without food by drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. The humps shrink, go flaccid and droop when a camel doesn’t get enough to eat and it loses the fat in the humps that keeps them erect.
Bactrian camels move at about five kilometer per hour and produce five kilograms of wool, 600 liters of milk, and 250 kilograms of dung a year. In the winter they sometimes die when because they are unable to scrape away snow from the grass and plants they eat. A Bactrian camel lived to be 36 in Britain. One of that age was still living in a Yokohama zoo in Japan in 2011.
Bactrian Camels and People
Bactrian camels have a shaggy outer coat that yields soft, highly sought-after "camel hair." The hair is usually plucked in the summer when the camels shed. An average camel yield 2½ pounds of hair a year. The hair is brushed and exported and woven into fine camel hair suits and coats. In hot places, Bactian camels are sheered in the summer.
Describing the milking of a camel, Thomas Allen wrote in National Geographic: "She wrapped a rope around the camel's back legs and tightened the rope by bracing her knee against the camel's rump. She led a nursing camel up to the female and, as soon as the baby camel began nursing, yanked it away. The woman then began milking g the came, squirting the milk into a dirty tin can."
When a Bactrian camel is ridden a saddle is placed between the camel’s humps. The saddle has a large wooden frame and is difficult to make. One saddle can be traded for one camel. Riding a saddle Bactrian camel is surprisingly comfortable. It is much more comfortable than riding a Sahara-style dromedary camel.
Male camels are often castrated. White camels are regarded as auspicious. It is not unusual for mother camels to reject their calves and refuse to give them milk. When this happens sometimes a musician is called in to play music to induce the camel to weep and accept the calf. See Film.
There are fewer camels than there used to be. Sometimes they are eaten for meat. Mostly they are not as useful as they once were. Truck now carry tents, goods and products that used to carried by camels.
camel outside old Beijing
Wild Bactrian Camels
There are fewer than 900 wild Bactrian camels remain in the wild. They live in three small populations: 1) one on the Mongolian-China border; 2) far western China; and 3) in the Kum Tagh desert. They are threatened by poaching, wolf predation and illegal mining. Some illegal miners have placed explosives at water holes to blow up camels.
Ancestors of the domestic camel, wild Bactrian camels are slimmer and less wooly and have smaller conical humps than domesticated Bactrian camels. They stand 172 cm at the shoulder. Males weigh 600 kg. Females weigh 450 kg.
Wild Bactrian camels live on the arid plains, hills and desert in Mongolia and China. They can survive on shrubby plats and no water for 10 days. They follow migratory paths across the desert to oasis and feed in tall grasses.
Female Bactrian camels travel in small groups. Males are often solitary. Mother Bactrian camels give birth alone. Young can walk almost immediately. After about of seclusion mother and young region the group with other females.
In the dictionary camels are referred to as cud-chewing artiodactl mammals. Camels are cud chewers like ruminants such as cows and buffalo but lack the split hooves of most ruminants. A camel stomach has three compartments while that of a deer four.
Camels have slobbery mouthes, long teeth, and huge lips. The can bite quite effectively and blow bubbled of spit. Giraffes, camels and goats have long tongues and leathery mouth interiors that allow them to carefully select the shoots and leaves they want and eat them without injuring themselves. The tongues of horny male camels swell to twice their size and their mouths fill up with a foamy lather that looks like beer head.
Camels look moth-eaten when they molt in the spring.
Camel Humps and Legs
Camels humps are filled with fat and muscle but no bone or free water. Their main purpose is to store fat as an energy reserve that sustains the animal when food and water isn't available. By concentrating fat in the hump rather than the body, the camel can expel body heat better through its body (there is no layer of fat to keep it inside). Most animals store their fat throughout their bodies.
The humps of Bactrian camels can reach a height of 18 inches and together hold as much as a 200 pounds. The camels can survive for weeks without food, drawing on the fat from the humps for energy. When the stored provisions are used the hump shrinks sometimes down to a loose, floppy sack.
The humps acts also like a body cover that protect and shade the internal organs by slowing the conduction of heat. One humps is better than two at withstanding the intense heat. Reuven Yagil wrote in Natural History magazine, "I have noticed that mass of fat heats up, the hump actually feels hot to the touch. The rest of the camel's body has very little insulating fat."
Camels have two large flexible toes on each foot instead of hooves. The toes are connected by skin so that when the animal walks their toes splay out and the webs keeps them from sinking in the sand. Beneath the toes are thick pads that offer protection from the heat. These soft padded feet are better adapted for traveling on sand than hard surfaces.
Camel Adaptions for the Desert, Heat and Lake of Water
Camels have dark eyes which are good for seeing in glaring sunshine. Their nostrils have small muscles that allow the animals to close them to small slits to keep out blowing sands. Their interlocking eyelashes also cut glare and keep out sand. They have thick coarse wool on their back which acts as insulatio from the hot sun but have little hair on their undesides which allows them to give off excess heat. [Source: Reuven Yagil, Natural History, August 1993]
Camels are able to consume large amounts of water and store it. They converse water by storing it in their stomachs and holding it in their tissues and cells and recycling it over and over for weeks. Their feces are very dry feces. They recycle water (as opposed to urinating it) through their kidneys, stomachs and blood and have the abilty to covert fat into liquid. Camel that has gone without water and recycled water for weeks can drink forty gallons and rehydrate its blood and kidneys in an hour.
If you touch a camel's inner nostrils they feel cool. Breathing helps cool a camel’s entire body and particularly helps keep the brain cool through a network of blood vessels that runs between the brain and the nose.
The camel's large size is an advantage. A large object takes a long time to warm up plus it can create a lot of its own shade. Excluding the hump, there is very little insulating fat. Extra body heat is transferred to the environment through the legs and, like a jack rabbit, through the ears.
In the winter camels need to drink about once every two weeks. In the summer they need water about once every four days.
Camels and the Changing Body Temperature and Metabolism
Camels also conserve water by raising and lowering their body temperature. Unlike people, who maintain a constant body temperature all the time, camels increase their temperatures slowly as the day warms up. As a result a camel does not loose much water whereas humans, who maintain a relatively low body heat, loses a lot of water to evaporation. At night camels give off heat so their temperatures are low in the morning.
A camel's body temperature varies as much 6°C, while a human varies only 1°C. In the night and early morning, the body temperature of a camel can drop to 93°F and rise to 106°F during the middle of the day.
Among all living things around 80 percent of the energy produced by the metabolism of food is released as heat. Most animals are taken to the limit of their survival capabilities by desert heat.
A camel’s ability to raise and lower it metabolic rates helps in survive in hot weather and endure extreme variations in temperature . Camels have a slower metabolic rate in the summer than winter, the opposite of most mammals.
With a lower metabolism, camels breath less and reduce the amount of water lost through respiration, helping them conserve water. Camels also collect salt in their kidneys like a dolphin. Dehydration also slows a reduction of the metabolic rate triggering a drop in thyroid function.
Camels have unusual blood. It has more water than the blood of other animals and the oval-shaped red blood stay intact even when the amount of liquid in the blood is low. When the amount of liquid is reduced in the blood of other animals, the red blood cells shrivel, the blood stops flowing and transferring body heat and a lethal heatstroke occurs. By contrast, the blood of a camel that has lost a third of it body water keep flowing and dissipating heat.
Camel in Mongolia in the early 20th century
Camel Heating-Saving Behavior
To conserve water and battle the heat, camels stay in a recumbent position for long periods during the day, thus reducing the heat energy produced by muscle activity and food metabolism.
Camels sometimes urinate on their legs. As the urine evaporates, the blood vessels on its legs are cooled. Nasal secretion that drip between the nose and mouth also act as a coolant but have a relatively minor effect.
Groups of camels sit close together so they cool each with the shade created by their bodies. Each camel faces the sun in such a way that its hump absorbs the direct sunlight. Resting camels will reorient themselves throughout the day in relation to the sun.
Camels are light sleepers. When they sleep they lay on their stomachs with their legs folded under them. Sometimes the lie in nests they dig out of the sand. Their heads always faces away from the wind. Sometimes they huddle together for protection from the wind.
Camels are cud-chewing ruminants with a hinged jaw and sharp teeth. Their mouth moves sideways when they eat. On the middle of their upper lip is a cleft like that on a rabbit. The two lip halves act like fingers to help the camel grasp and feel food. They sometimes kneel on their front legs when the drink or eat fodder. See Cattle
When grazing, camels tend to prune rather than eat to ground level which allows the plants they eat to survive (goats on the other hand eat right down to the roots, often killing the plant). Camels wander for miles in search in food and don't kill all the vegetation in one area (unlike cattle which often gather and kill all the vegetation near wells).
Camels will eat almost anything. They can eat the thorniest of desert plants, chew tent cloth or their own saddles. An old mat or basket is considered a treat. When they forage the eat the long green thorn leaves from acacia trees, desert shrubs and dry grasses. They can subsist on thorny plants but a steady diet of that kind of food can damage their health.
Camels and Water
Camels can live longer than almost any other animal without food and water. They can easily go more than seven days in the summer without water and two weeks week in the winter without it, and can drink 70 liters at one time. In the winter camels can survive for more than 30 days on little water and little hay.
In the winter camels need to drink about once every two weeks. In the summer it is about once every four days.
Describing a camel that went 14 days without water, Reuven Yagil wrote in Natural History, "Even though the camels had lost 50 gallons of body water each, they gazed into the distance, serenely chewing their cuds...The camels appeared or be unaffected by the heat."
Camels are usually taken to water at midmorning when the camels are most likely to drink large amounts of water. After a long period without water the camels bellow, burp, paw, slurp and growl loudly when they drink. When a large number of camels gather around a drinking hole, some drink while others patiently wait their turn.
When a camel that hasn't had water for a long time finally drinks, it take in only the amount of water that has been lost and does not drink extra and put to on to storage.
Camels are generally slow reproducers, Females generally only give birth to one calf every two years. They are not ready to copulate until they are six years old and males have only a once-a-year rutting season. The gestation period of a Bacterin camel is 406 days and a around 11 months for dromedary camel. Most females give birth to a single calf
During the rutting season males give off an offensive odor.
Since the Middle Ages, Arabs used an IUD-like device (small stone slid into the uterus) to prevent pregnancies in camels.
A camel calf stands about three feet tall when born. After about a day it can walk well enough to follow its mother to a foraging area.
About the only camels who seem able to express some tenderness are mothers with their calves. They constantly muzzle and nurse their young and seem genuinely contented whenever the are near them. The calf seeks shade under its mother in day and snuggles up to her for warmth at night.
Camels and Humans
Camels serve humans as beasts of burden, transportation. desert companion, source of pride, measure of wealth, hero of poetry and legends. It provides milk and, for the occasional feast, meat. From its wool women weave blankets and rugs; its hide is turned into sandals, candles, buckets. Camel dung fires are a source of heat and used for cooking.
Camels were never good as a military animal although special camels called mehari have been bred for warfare and racing. These animal can travel 75 to 120 miles a day at a steady trot of 9 to 10 miles per hour. Otherwise camels are good at endurance but slow and unwieldy as a mount for s soldier. In warfare they were good for crossing deserts but not a good cavalry animal.
Camels are ideal for caravans because they can go longs times without water and can travel long distances between pastures. They allow caravans to set up their camps far form water sources. They are also invaluable because they can be used to transport water from wells to camps and stay mobile and move to good grazing areas.
Camel Behavior Around Humans
Camel Square Camel riders have described their animals as truculent and unruly. Camels kick, wine, bellow, bite and spit putrid green saliva. They make a particular ruckus when they are coerced into kneeling. They often get up snapping and snarling when they are loaded down with too much stuff. The get camels to kneel they are often whacked on the head.
"For sheer stubbornness, bad manners and cursedness, the camel is without peer," Franz Lidz wrote in Sports Illustrated. "The haughty creature commonly shows disdain for racing by rearing its head and discouraging the contents of its stomach on the rider. Every race, there are always a few camels that refuse to budge; one even stopped dead a couple of yards from the finish line.”
Some camels are more ornery than others. And even agreeable animals have bad days when they are grumpy and stubborn. The camels often fight among themselves for their share of food. Aggressive camels bite their rivals in the withers. Sometimes the whither wounds are so severe that the camel is unable to be saddled or loaded up.
Camels are usually kept occupied because when they are left to their own devices they often do things that are mischievous or obnoxious. When camels begin acting particularly erratically, their behavior is often blamed on evil spirits. When this happens the only thing one can do is keeping moving and get of the spirit’s range.
Camel Meat and Products
Camels produces meat, milk, leather and wool. Because they reproduce slowly and have long gestation periods camels are not considered a good source of meat or milk. Goats and sheep are much more efficient protein providers.
Camel hair is used to make felt, brushes, and a variety of woolen products. The fine camel hair used or quality overcoats and suits comes from Bactrian camela. The finest quality hair comes from the short silky down that grows next to the skin. A camel also produces 500 pounds of camel dung fuel a year.
Camels are a valuable source of food when crops or food sources fail. Camel meat is not normally eaten, but incases of emergency or famine or when an animal dies suddenly they will be eaten. On long caravans that get into trouble camel meat has often meant the difference between life and death.
Muslims are specifically allowed to eat camel meat. Muslims have traditionally consumed camel milk and eaten the animals for emergency supplies of meat or when an animal dies. According to one Kenyan tribesmen camel meat tastes salty, sweet and soft like ibex, kudu, or wildebeest. Fat from the hump is used in place of butter.
Crippled camels and camels with a broken leg are slaughtered and eaten. Fouls given birth are sold if possible or killed. Describing the killing and slaughter of a camel, Louis Werner wrote in Smithsonian magazine,"We arrived at the scene just in time to see the squatting camel pinned to ground with its neck pulled out taut by the rein and the knife make a 180-degree slash on its underside. The body strained backward, the eyes bulged and blood sprayed over the sand for yards. When the heart had pumped the body nearly dry, the skin was laid open on either side like a picnic cloth and four men undressed the corpse with flashing blades. The ring of onlookers shouted instructions, and finally such choice parts as the hump fat, chest callus, hoof jelly and liver emerged from the shrunken carcass. each of us had a share of the liver and hump, still hot and raw. Our drovers collected their quarter-side of camel and returned to the herd. [Source:Louis Werner, Smithsonian magazine, March 1987]
Camel milk is more nutritious and stays longer than cow milk. High in protein and Vitamin C and low in cholesterol, it is sweet and has a cheesy flavor. Camel milk ice cream has been described richer and sweeter than cow milk ice cream. Camel milk can be fermented because it has a high sugar content. Camel cheese is very bitter.
In desert areas camels provide more milk than cattle and nomads prize lactating camels the most. Females camels generally continue to produce 2½ gallons of milk a day in the wet season and around a gallon a day in the dry season for a year and half after they give birth (a cow by contrast only lactates for seven to nine months and gives between a pint and two quarts a day).
Even when water is scarce or brackish or there is a drought, camels continue to produce milk. Baby camels are often killed and their skins are hung to keep the she-camels producing milk.
Milk is taken from hobbled she camels with a leather bowl. A camel's two teats must be milked at the same time or else one will retract out of reach. Describing the milking of a camel, Thomas Allen wrote in National Geographic: "She wrapped a rope around the camel's back legs and tightened the rope by bracing her knee against the came's rump. She led a nursing camel up to the female and, as soon as the baby camel began nursing, yanked it away. The woman then began milking the camel, squirting the milk into a dirty tin can." Camel-udder covers prevent baby camels from nursing whenever they feel like it.
Controlling a Camel
Camels are steered or controlled with wooden nose pegs that are drilled through their flesh, metal rings that are jabbed though the camel's upper lip or nose. Camels are tethered though their nose ring and saddles.
Camels are marched in single file in groups of about six. Pack camels will not go forward unless someone or something is leading him or her.
Camel herders punch their animals on the rubbery noses to earn respect from their animals. They whip their camels to make them kneel or go forward. A camel prod is as long as a walking stick and is crooked at the end.
Camels are hobbled to keep them from straying. Sometimes a knee is bent and a rope is tied around it. An entire herd can be hobbled in about 20 minutes.
Getting On and Off a Camel
You don't mount a camel like you do a horse. When camel crouches on the ground you climb over the hump, sit on the saddle and grab the saddle pommel and hold on tight. When the animal lurches upwards—first on hind legs and then on it fronts legs—you first lean back, then forward, and back and forth again in the opposite direction of the camel. On the initial rise make sure you are leaning backwards so you don’t fall over the camel’s head.
A “ sh sh sh command brings camels to the ground. Grabbing the saddle pommel to the “ zzt zzt ” command is supposed to make the animal rise but often whip or a sharp whack is often the only thing that will get it off the ground. Even then there is often a lot groaning, bellowing and even spitting and biting.
When you get off, hold on tight as the camel goes into its crouch. The camel drops to its front legs first and then its back legs so be prepared to be thrown forward and then backwards. After the ride many people feel a little wobbly.
Camels as Pack Animals and Working Animals
Camels can carry 600-pound loads 50 kilometers a day for days, and go with food or water for more than a week.
Camels can carry anything that can be loaded on their backs. In remote areas of the Sahara solar powered refrigerators filled with vaccines have carried on the backs of camels.
The expression the straw that broke the camel's back can be traced back to Greek historian Pliny the Elder who believed that camels trained to carry a certain load couldn't carry one straw more.
Blindfolded camels are sometimes hitched to waterwheel and other devises instead of oxen or water buffalo. In some place you can still find police and soldiers who perform their duties on camel back.
Image Sources: Silk Road Foundation; Shanghai Museum, CNTO, camel photos.com
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2012