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.

Kuo P'u wrote in the A.D. 3rd century: The camel...manifests its merit in dangerous places; it has secret understanding of springs and sources; subtle indeed is its knowledge. Mei Yao-ch'en wrote in the A.D. 11th century:
Crying camels come out of the Western Regions,
Tail to muzzle linked, one after the other.
The posts of Han sqeep them away throught he clouds,
The men of Hu lead them over the snow.

Camels are mentioned in the Koran and regarded by Bedouins 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 ; Silk Road Foundation; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Silk Road Atlas ; Old World Trade Routes; Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project ; International Dunhuang Project ; Marco Polo: Wikipedia Marco Polo Wikipedia ; Works by Marco Polo ; Marco Polo and his Travels ; Zheng He and Early Chinese Exploration : Wikipedia Chinese Exploration Wikipedia ; Le Monde Diplomatique ; Zheng He Wikipedia Wikipedia ; Gavin Menzies’s 1421 ; First Europeans in Asia Wikipedia ; Matteo Ricci Books: on the Silk Road The Silk Road (Odyssey Guides); Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey by Mike Yamashita (White Star, 2002); “Life along the Silk Road” by Whitfield, Susan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); “The Silk Route: Trade, Travel, War and Faith” by Susan Whitfield, with Ursula Sims-Williams, eds. (London: British Library, 2004); “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975). 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.

Types of Camels

20080318-camels cnto.jpg
Bactrian 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. Two to 3.4 meters in length and weighing 450 to 550 kilograms, 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." The term 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.

Dromedary and Bactrian camels can breed and produce fertile offspring. ,Bukht camels, a hybrid of dromedary and Bactrian camels, were bred especially for caravan work. Resembling dromedary camels with a saddle-like knot 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 are 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 3,000 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 backs of camels. Camels came to Africa from Asia about 500 B.C.

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Domesticated as long ago as the fourth millennium B.C., by the first millennium B.C. camels were prominently depicted on Assyrian and Achaemenid Persian carved reliefs and figured in Biblical texts as indicators of wealth. Among the most famous depictions are those in the ruins of Persepolis, where both of the main camel species--the one-humped dromedary of Western Asia and the two-humped Bactrian of Eastern Asia--are represented in the processions of those bearing tribute to the Persian king. [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, *]

“In China awareness of the value of the camel was heightened by the interactions between the Han and the Xiongnu toward the end of the first millennium B.C. when camels were listed among the animals taken captive on military campaigns or sent as diplomatic gifts or objects of trade in exchange for Chinese silk. Campaigns of the Chinese army to the north and west against the nomads invariably required support by large trains of camels to carry supplies. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century CE, the success of Arab armies in rapidly carving out an empire in the Middle East was due to a considerable degree to their use of camels as cavalry mounts. *\

Bactrian Camels

young wild Bactrian camel
Bactrian camels are camels with two humps and two coats of hair. The long, woolly outer coat varies from brown to beige. The animals have a mane and beardlike hair on their throat. Their feet are broad and adapted for walking on sandy terrain and snow. Adults may exceed three meters in length, stand two meters at the top of the hump and weigh more than 700 kilograms.

Widely domesticated and capable of carrying 250 kilograms (600 pounds), they are native to Central Asia, where a few wild ones still live, and seem no worse for wear when temperatures drop to -29 degrees C (-20 degrees F). The fact they can endure extreme hot and cold and travel long periods of time without water has made them ideal caravan animals.

The humps store energy in the form of fat and can reach a height of half a meter (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 the humps lose the fat 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 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. Females reach sexual maturity at three to four years, males at five to six years.

Camels: the Ideal Caravan Animal

Bactrian camels can go a week without water and a month without food. A thirsty camel can drink 100 to 110 liters (26 to 29 gallons) of water in ten minutes. For protections against sandstorms, Bactrian camels have two sets of eyelids and eyelashes. The extra eyelids can wipe sand like windshield wipers. Their nostrils can shrink to a narrow slit to keep out blowing sand. Bactrian camels slobber a lot when they get horny (See Camel wrestling).

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The Bactrian or two-humped camel permits” its users “to transport heavy loads through the desert and other inhospitable terrain. The camel is invaluable not only for transporting the folded gers and other household furnishings when the Mongols move to new pastureland, but also to carry goods designed for trade. A camel could endure the heat of the Gobi desert, could drink enormous quantities of water and then continue for days without liquid, required less pasture than other pack animals, and could extract food from the scruffiest shrubs or blades of grass — all ideal qualities for the daunting desert terrain of southern Mongolia. In addition to the camel's importance for transport,” the animal was valued for its wool, milk (which can also be made into cheese), and meat. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University ]

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “The camel's great virtues include the ability to carry substantial loads--400-500 pounds--and their well-known capacity for surviving in arid conditions. The secret to the camel's ability to go for days without drinking is in its efficient conservation and processing of fluids (it does not store water in its hump[s], which in fact are largely fat). Camels can maintain their carrying capacity over long distances in dry conditions, eating scrub and thorn bushes. When they drink though, they may consume 25 gallons at a time; so caravan routes do have to include rivers or wells at regular intervals. The use of the camel as the dominant means of transporting goods over much of Inner Asia is in part a matter of economic efficiency — as Richard Bulliet has argued, camels are cost efficient compared to the use of carts requiring the maintenance of roads and the kind of support network that would be required for other transport animals. In some areas though down into modern times, camels continue to be used as draft animals, pulling plows and hitched to carts. *\ [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, *]

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, Bactrian 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 the camel, 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 saddled 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 in Mongolia 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. Trucks now carry tents, goods and products that used to carried by camels.

camel outside old Beijing

Camels and Silk Road Art

Daniel C. Waugh of the University of Washington wrote: “Visual representations of” camels “may celebrate them as essential to the functions and status of royalty. Textiles woven by and for the nomads using the wool from their flocks often include images of these animals. The royal art of the Sasanians (3rd-7th century) in Persia includes elegant metal plates, among them ones showing the ruler hunting from camelback. A famous ewer fashioned in the Sogdian regions of Central Asia at the end of the Sasanian period shows a flying camel, the image of which may have inspired a later Chinese report of flying camels being found in the mountains of the Western Regions. *\

Given their importance in the lives of peoples across inner Asia, not surprisingly camels...figure in literature and the visual arts. A Japanese TV crew filming a series on the Silk Road in the 1980s was entertained by camel herders in the Syrian desert singing a love ballad about camels. Camels frequently appear in early Chinese poetry, often in a metaphorical sense. Examples in the visual arts of China are numerous. Beginning in the Han Dynasty, grave goods often include these animals among the mingqi, the sculptural representations of those who were seen as providing for the deceased in the afterlife. The best known of the mingqi are those from the T'ang period, ceramics often decorated in multicolored glaze (sancai). While the figures themselves may be relatively small (the largest ones normally not exceeding between two and three feet in height) the images suggest animals with "attitude"— camels often seem to be vocally challenging the world around them (perhaps here the "crying camels" of the poet quoted above). [Source: Daniel C. Waugh, University of Washington, *]

“A recent study of the camel mingqi indicates that in the T'ang period the often detailed representation of their loads may represent not so much the reality of transport along the Silk Road but rather the transport of goods (including food) specific to beliefs of what the deceased would need in the afterlife. Some of these camels transport orchestras of musicians from the Western Regions; other mingqi frequently portray the non-Chinese musicians and dancers who were popular among the T'ang elite...It is significant that the human attendants (grooms, caravaneers) of the animal figures among the mingqi usually are foreigners, not Chinese. Along with the animals, the Chinese imported the expert animal trainers; the caravans invariably were led by bearded westerners wearing conical hats. The use of foreign animal trainers in China during the Yüan (Mongol) period of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries is well documented in the written sources. *\

“Apart from the well-known scuptures, the images of horse and camel in China also include paintings. Narrative scenes in the Buddhist murals of the caves in Western China often represent merchants and travelers in the first instance by virtue of their being accompanied by camel caravans. Among the paintings on paper found in the famous sealed library at Dunhuang are evocatively stylized images of camels (drawn with, to the modern eye, a sense of humor). The Chinese tradition of silk scroll painting includes many images of foreign ambassadors or rulers of China with their horses.’ *\

Wild Bactrian Camels

There are fewer than 900 wild Bactrian camels remaining 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, wolves 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 centimeters at the shoulder. Males weigh 600 kilograms and females weigh 450 kilograms. They eat grasses, leaves and shrubs.

Wild Bactrian camels live on the arid plains, hills and desert in Mongolia and China. They can survive on shrubby plants 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 with six to 20 members. Males are often solitary but will unite with a female group in the mating season if strong enough to fend off rivals. During the rutting season males puff out their cheeks, toss their heads, slobber and grind their teeth. Mother Bactrian camels give birth alone. The gestation period is 13 months. Usually one calf, sometimes two, are born. Young can walk almost immediately. After about a month of seclusion mother and young join the group with other females. Young nurse for one to two years.

Camels and Humans

Camels serve humans as beasts of burden, transportation sources, desert companions, source of pride, measures of wealth and heroes in poems and legends. They provide milk and, for the occasional feast, meat. From its wool women weave blankets and rugs; its hide is turned into sandals, candles and buckets. Camel dung fires are a source of heat and used for cooking.

Camels have never been very good as military animals 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 mounts for soldiers. In warfare they were good for crossing deserts but not good cavalry animals.

Camels are ideal for desert 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 from 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. To get camels to kneel sometimes requires whacking them ed 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 wounds from these bites 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 out of the spirit’s range.

Controlling a Camel

A camel is steered or controlled with a wooden nose peg that is drilled through its flesh or a metal ring that is jabbed though the camel's upper lip or nose. Camels are tethered using their nose rings 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 them.

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 with a rope tied between their legs 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 a whip or a sharp whack is the only thing that will get the animal 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 ride on a camel many people feel a little wobbly.

Camels as Pack Animals and Working Animals

Camels can carry 250-kilogram 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 been carried on the backs of camels.

The expression the straw that broke the camel's back has been traced back to the Roman 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

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.

Last updated August 2021

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