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Dromedaries in antiquity: Iberia and beyond.

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). The bone was retrieved in old excavations now under re-evaluation; Cardoso (pers. comm.) connects it with occupation during the Imperial period.

Complutum: urban centre next to the city of Alcala de Henares, close to Madrid

During 1984 excavations, a distal portion of a left metatarsal was identified (Molero in press; [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4A OMITTED]). Again, no humanly derived marks are detected; the individual was a sub-adult or an adult, for its epiphyses were already fused. The context dates this bone between the 3rd and start of the 4th century AD (Molero pers. comm.).

El Val: Roman villa, lying next to and contemporaneous with Complutum

This first phalanx is slightly eroded, and the proximal epiphysis shows it had been recently fused to the diaphysis [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 4B OMITTED]. The animal was sub-adult at most.

Cartago Nova: Roman amphitheatre of Cartagena (province Murcia), built over the Punic colony of Cartago Nova

A coronoid process of a mandible [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5A OMITTED], retrieved during 1992 excavations, exhibits cut-marks made by the extraction of the tongue, and also superficial burning marks. The stratigraphic unit was filled up with archaeological debris from Imperial times, with occasional material from the Republican period (Perez-Ballester pers. comm.). Ceramic chronology by Terra Sigillata, Arentina, Subgallica, etc. allows a tentative dating of these units as about AD 70-80 (Perez Ballester et al. 1993).

Dromedary bones from Muslim sites

Seven dromedary remains have been retrieved from urban medieval levels in the Muslim cities of Granada (Riquelme in press a; in press c) and Guadix (Riquelme in press b).


Two bones, one metatarsal and a first phalanx, were retrieved in 1991 excavations, the metatarsal in the floor of Granada's cathedral. It exhibits saw-marks in order to separate the diaphysis, probably in connection with some industrial activity [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5B OMITTED], and its whole surface appears to have been subject to fire. Dated to the Caliphate period (10th-11th centuries AD), the bone was dug out from a sealed mud-brick oven filled with calcined animal bones and cooking-ware of various types (stew-pots, stewing-pans, etc.) in an apparent kitchen context. The phalanx was also retrieved from levels of the Caliphate period at the Espino street excavation (Adroher et al. in press). It was complete except for its proximal epiphysis (not fused) and exhibited small cut-marks [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 5C OMITTED].


In the archaeological sequence of the San Miguel street excavation, five dromedary remains were retrieved in 1992 (Gonzalez et al. in press). Two radii and one naviculo-cuboid appeared in Almohad levels (12th century AD), associated with a large ceramic assemblage [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 5D, 5E, 5F OMITTED]. An astragalus and a distal portion of a femur were retrieved from a well used as a cess-pit during the Nazari period (13th-14th century AD) [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURES 5G, 5H OMITTED].

Both radius fragments exhibit saw-marks. The tarsals are complete, and the femur exhibits recent damage. Saw-marks seem to go with some industrial activity. On the astragalus, one can spot small cut-marks aimed at severing tendons which connect it to the tibia. All in all, the dismembering seems to have been quite thorough.
TABLE 1. Measurements, in millimetres, of Iberian dromedary bones,
compared with recent specimens reported by Steiger (1990).

sample Roman medieval recent
bone no. value no. value no. range mean

radius (Guadix)

Bd 1 99.0 11 82.0-94.5 89.2
BFd 1 90.0 12 72.5-82.0 77.5

astragalas (Guadix)

GLI 1 74.5 10 70.0-83.5 76.7
GLm 1 65.5 10 63.0-74.0 67.6
Bd 1 47.5 10 47.0-53.5 50.4

metacarpal (Conimbriga)

Bp 1 75.5 12 62.0-74.0 68.7
Dp 1 49
SD 1 40.5 12 31.0-38.0 34.0
DD 1 35

metatarsal (Complutum)

Bd 2 91 (91) 12 72.0-80.07 6.2
TMG 44
BMG 42
TLG 40
BTI 1 40.5 12 31.0-36.0 33.8
BTm 1 42 12 32.0-37.0 34.3

first phalanx (El Val)

GL 1 (91) 1 (94.5) 8 80.0-95.0 88.9
Bp 1 37.5 8 33.0-39.0 35.6
SD 1 17.8 1 19.8 8 17.0-20.0 18.6
Bd 1 35.2 8 31.0-34.0 32.8
DP 1 (31.5)

Measurement codes follow Driesch (1976). Bracketed figures are
imprecise because the bone is eroded. (TMG = greatest depth of
medial articular knob, BMG = greatest width of medial articular
knob, TLG = greatest depth of lateral articular knob.)

Bio-cultural implications of the dromedary remains

Roman period

Though its original use seems to have been as a pack animal, the camel's functions were many-fold - from war-animal to status symbol, draught beast or fuel-provider (Keller 1909; Zeuner 1963; der Kleine Pauly 1969; Mommsen 1983; Mason 1984; Wilson 1984). Biblical texts mention that richness and social status was measured by the number of camels possessed, although the camel is an impure beast to the Jews (Feliks 1962: 46; Gesner 1669: 234). Camels also became a way to pay tributes, a custom which went into Roman times.

If in Roman times, not too many camels were used as draught animals in the littoral fringe of northwest Africa, their main functions were connected with transport and war. The camel corps, incorporated into the Roman army after campaigns in the Near East, do not seem to have had a strictly military function, but instead were turned to transporting stores and ammunition, ensuring a certain autonomy to Roman garrisons (Toynbee 1973: 139). Across the African territory these cavalrymen had charge of the official Imperial mail as well as being sentries of Empire borders (Keller 1909). In no place is it stated that camels were a regular Roman food item; some authors mention the camel becoming a draught animal during the 2nd century BC when the Saharan nomads 'worked their way northwards and were encountered by the romans in Tripolitania and Tunisia' (Mason 1984: 111).

From the Iberian archaeological finds, the earliest evidence of camels in the European continent, we can see:

They are dated to the lower Imperial period, basically synchronous with finds from central European Roman sites. It appears there was a time when the Romans imported dromedaries to different places of their Empire (but see Albarella et al. 1993).

While most European finds have military associations, those of Iberia are usually in civil contexts.

Dromedaries may have been connected with ludi, the Roman public games; recall the synchronicity of our dromedary from Cartage Nova with Nero's enthusiasm for camel races! (Roman mosaics show riders mounted on dromedaries trying to lance lions! (Keller 1909))

Muslim period

The dromedary remains from the Caliphate period refute the long-held notion that dromedaries arrived in Iberia with the Almoravids and Almohads, and support Zeuner's (1963: 358) statement, 'The Mahometans took the dromedary to Spain in AD 1019.'

The number of dromedaries in Iberia was probably never high - except in two periods.

From Ibn al Jatib, we learn that Ibn Hayyan writes of Al'Mansur carrying huge numbers of dromedaries into Spain from northern Africa at the end of the Caliphate period during his campaigns against the Christians. In the year 1002, his army had more than '1700 horses, 250 beasts of burden and 3900 dromedaries used for the transport of heavy equipment' (Levi-Provencal 1956). During times of peace, the dromedaries were set free to roam in the steppes of Albacete and Murcia (southeast Spain); one wonders why these did not establish permanent feral populations on Iberian soil, much as they did in Australia some eight centuries later (McKnight 1969).

A second wave came with the north African Almoravids and Almohads' invasions of Iberia. These Berber tribes had previously incorporated the dromedary into their economies and household tasks, perhaps since the Muslim Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century (Mason 1984). Texts show dromedaries were imported on a large scale. We learn from Ibn Jallikan (citing al-Maqqari), 'Jusuf ben Tasfin ordered the camels to cross and so many of them did that they completely filled up Algeciras and their bellows filled the heavens. Neither the Spaniards nor their horses had ever seen a dromedary and were terrified when they saw them and heard their bellows' (Garcia Gomez 1934).

The marks and traces of fire on bones from Muslim sites indicate regular use of dromedary meat during this period, in contrast to what we see on Roman sites. Two Andalusian culinary treatises mention the meat. Ab-Arbuli's Treatise on foodstuffs considers dromedary meat among the toughest, to be cooked with lots of oil and hot spices (Diaz-Garcia 1982-3). Ibn al-Jatib's Book on hygiene (mid 14th century) thinks dromedary meat 'very heavy, cold and of slow digestion', recommending the consumption of young animals (Vazquez de Benito 1984). (Perhaps this explains the juvenile phalange from Granada.) Camel milk was easy to digest, although less nutritive than that from other ungulates (Garcia Sanchez 1983).

The consumption of dromedary meat in Iberia could have had ritual connotations in affirming the Muslim condition of Andalusians. After finishing a pilgrimage to Mecca, it seems, dromedaries were gorged to be eaten thereafter (Pellat 1934), or they were consumed at family festivals, when receiving a guest, etc. In this way, eating dromedary became a sign of cultural identity (Pellat 1934; Schauenburg 1955-6).

The size of the Iberian dromedaries

Comparison with recent specimens shows an unexpectedly large size, both from Roman and medieval times (TABLE 1). Some values from our sub-fossil finds exceed those of recent animals, and all values are close to the maximum values provided by Steiger (1990). The recent and sub-fossil samples are few in number. Nevertheless, we believe that the large size of the sub-fossil dromedaries can be attributed to the castration of at least some specimens. Castration of camels was known to the Romans, Aelianus stating that castrated specimens, larger and more robust, are recommended if the animals are used in strenuous activities (Piehler 1976).


Given this repeated presence of dromedaries in Iberia, we think their absence from the present-day domestic fauna follows three types of reasons, ecological, demographic and cultural/functional.

The apparently adequate habitats for dromedaries in Spain - steppes, semi-desert, etc. - are limited in extent, and most seem of rather recent origin, developing during historical times. Alternative open habitats - savannahs and grasslands - are less adequate for dromedaries, and seem to have originated in indigenous breeding of other ungulates.

Both documentary records and archaeozoological data suggest that dromedaries were present in Iberia only in small numbers. From a zoogeographical standpoint, we know that the chances for successful colonization in such cases are usually quite low.

Cultural reasons also ensured that dromedories could not succeed as domesticates. In both Roman and Muslim times, dromedaries seem introduced as signs of a cultural identity, and this might encourage their extinction once their importers left the peninsula. From the start of the Iberian conquest, the Romans had established public games involving dromedaries as signs of the Romanization process; as early as 206 BC, war-games took place in the amphitheatre of Cartage Nova to honour the father and uncle of Scipio Africanus - although we do not know if these included dromedaries (Blazquez et al. 1978).

Perhaps more relevant was the fact that several domestic species in Iberia fulfilled the roles which the dromedary played; in particular, the extensive road system rendered the dromedary's function as a pack beast unnecessary.

Acknowledgements. We would like to express our gratitude to Professor J.L. Cardoso (Coimbra) and to G. Molero (Madrid) for allowing us to use their unpublished data on dromedary remains from Conimbriga, Complutum and Villa de El Val. Professor J. Perez-Ballester (Cartagena) provided us with the bone remains from the Roman amphitheatre of Cartage Nova and with useful contextual information. Marta Moreno (Cambridge) helped with the English text.

1 This paper refers only to the dromedary (the one-humped camel). The history of the two-humped Bactrian camel seems to have been an Asiatic event (Zeuner 1963; Mason 1984; Wilson 1984).


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Arturo Morales Muniz & Corina Liesau von Lettow-Vorbeck, Laboratorio de Arqueozoologia, Departamento de Biologia, Universidad Autonoma de Madrid, E-28049 Madrid, Spain. Jose A. Riquelme, Departamento de Prehistoria y Arqueologia, Universidad de Granada, E-18011 Granada, Spain.
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Author:Muniz, Arturo Morales; Riquelme, Jose A.; Lettow-Vorbeck, Corina Liesau von
Date:Jun 1, 1995
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