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Notebook Science

Whence cometh my camels?

HUMP DAYS: A relief showing a domesticated camel from the 10th century B.C. found in Syria. (The Walters Art Museum)

Kristine Gingras


Whence cometh my camels?

Scholars who dispute biblical references to camels ignore other evidence

The patriarch Abraham possessed camels, the Bible tells us—along with sheep, oxen, donkeys, and male and female servants. His chief servant took 10 camels on a wife-hunting expedition. His grandson Jacob had his own herds.

Not so, say two archaeologists from Tel Aviv University in Israel. In their study published in the journal Tel Aviv last October (and garnering Western media attention in February), Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef claim domesticated camels didn’t exist in Israel during the time of the patriarchs. American Friends of Tel Aviv University stated in a press release, “In addition to challenging the Bible’s historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the [Bible’s] text was compiled well after the events it describes.” As is often the case with such claims, however, the “proof” isn’t as strong as it sounds.

The researchers based their conclusions on pack camel bones found in Jordan and in Israel at an ancient copper mine. The bones, including leg bones showing signs of stress, were found in layers they dated no earlier than the last third of the 10th century B.C.—suggesting domesticated camels were introduced to the region at that time. While they admitted some camel bones appeared in older layers, they attributed them to wild animals.

Many other biblical scholars are unconvinced. Semitic scholar K. Martin Heide of Philipps University in Marburg, Germany, who published a treatise on camel domestication in 2011, said the researchers were arguing from a lack of evidence: “Absence of evidence (of camel bones) is not evidence of absence (of the camel) in Israel in the 2nd millennium,” he told Tyndale House in Cambridge, England. The references to camels in Genesis, he said, don’t necessarily mean their use was widespread, even if Abraham (who was a wealthy native of Mesopotamia) owned them.

Other archaeological discoveries depicting domesticated camels—carvings and figurines of camels carrying riders or other burdens—have been found in Egypt and elsewhere, and date to the second or third millennium B.C. A Syrian cylinder seal, dated as early as 1800 B.C., shows a couple riding a two-humped camel. Yet the Tel Aviv researchers dismissed such evidence of early domestication as “debatable.”

Which suggests Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef are primarily interested in promoting evidence that backs their own theory. Todd Bolen, a biblical studies professor at The Master’s College in California, told Christianity Today correspondent Gordon Govier the study is meant to support the disputed “low chronology” interpretation of the reigns of David and Solomon: “The conclusions are overstated.”

Climbin’ crocs

True or false: Crocodiles can climb trees. The surprising answer is “true.” Researchers studying the phenomenon of tree-climbing crocs in Australia, Africa, and North America found the cold-blooded beasts sunbathing on branches or fallen trunks as much as 13 feet high. Anecdotal reports say crocs can climb 30 feet. 

Crocodiles tend to climb branches and trunks bent at an angle, but juveniles can scale vertical branches by gripping them from the sides, said the researchers, writing in the online journal Herpetology Notes in January. Since crocodile skeletons don’t seem built for climbing, they say the activity proves the fossil record may not illuminate all the behaviors of extinct animals. —D.J.D.