The History of Camel Domestication

Dromedary camels in the desert, one with raised leg.
Terry McCormick / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images

There are two Old World species of quadruped animal of the deserts of the world known as the camel, and four species in the New World, all of which have implications for archaeology and all of which effectively changed the different cultures which domesticated them.

Camelidae evolved in what is today North America, some 40-45 million years ago, and the divergence between what would become Old and New World camel species occurred in North America about 25 million years ago. During the Pliocene epoch, the Camelini (camels) spread into Asia, and the Lamini (llamas) migrated into South America: their ancestors survived for another 25 million years until they became extinct in North America during the mass megafaunal extinctions at the end of the last ice age.

Old World Species

Two species of camels are known in the modern world. Asian camels were (and are) used for transportation, but also for their milk, dung, hair, and blood, all of which were used for various purposes by nomadic pastoralists of the deserts.

  • The Bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) (two humps) resides in central Asia, especially Mongolia and China.
  • The dromedary camel (Camelus dromedarius) (one hump) is found in North Africa, Arabia, and the Middle East.

New World Species

There are two domesticated species and two wild species of camels, all of them located in Andean South America. South American camels were also definitely used for food (they were likely the first meat used in c'harki) and transport, but they also were prized for their ability to navigate in the high altitude arid environments of the Andes mountains, and for their wool, which engendered an ancient textile art.

  • The guanaco (Lama guanicoe) is the largest of the wild species, and it is the wild form of the alpaca (Lama pacos L.).
  • The vicuna (Vicugna vicugna), daintier than the guanaco (tribe Lamini) species, is the wild form of the domestic llama (Lama glama L.).


Compagnoni B, and Tosi M. 1978. The camel: Its distribution and state of domestication in the Middle East during the third millennium B.C. in light of the finds from Shahr-i Sokhta. Pp. 119–128 in Approaches to Faunal Analysis in the Middle East, edited by R.H. Meadow and M.A. Zeder. Peabody Museum Bulletin no 2, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, New Haven, CT.

Gifford-Gonzalez, Diane. "Domesticating Animals in Africa: Implications of Genetic and Archaeological Findings." Journal of World Prehistory 24, Olivier Hanotte, ResearchGate, May 2011.

Grigson C, Gowlett JAJ, and Zarins J. 1989. The Camel in Arabia: A Direct Radiocarbon Date, Calibrated to about 7000 BC. Journal of Archaeological Science 16:355-362. doi:10.1016/0305-4403(89)90011-3

Ji R, Cui P, Ding F, Geng J, Gao H, Zhang H, Yu J, Hu S, and Meng H. 2009. Monophyletic origin of domestic bactrian camel (Camelus bactrianus) and its evolutionary relationship with the extant wild camel (Camelus bactrianus ferus). Animal Genetics 40(4):377-382. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2052.2008.01848.x

Weinstock J, Shapiro B, Prieto A, Marín JC, González BA, Gilbert MTP, and Willerslev E. 2009. The Late Pleistocene distribution of vicuñas (Vicugna vicugna) and the “extinction” of the gracile llama (“Lama gracilis”): New molecular data. Quaternary Science Reviews 28(15–16):1369-1373. doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.03.008

Zeder MA, Emshwiller E, Smith BD, and Bradley DG. 2006. Documenting domestication: the intersection of genetics and archaeology. Trends in Genetics 22(3):139-155. doi:10.1016/j.tig.2006.01.007

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "The History of Camel Domestication." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). The History of Camel Domestication. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "The History of Camel Domestication." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).