Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

1135th General Monthly Meeting

"Bactrian camels in antiquity"

Dan Potts, Edwin Cuthbert Hall Professor of Middle Eastern Archaeology
Curator of the Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney

Wednesday 1 June 2005, 6 pm for 7 pm
Conference Room 1, Darlington Centre, Sydney University


If the Silk Road may be described as 'the bridge between Eastern and Western cultures', then the Bactrian camel should rightfully be considered the principal means of locomotion across that bridge. And yet there is a great deal of misinformation concerning the Bactrian camel and its relatives, particularly in the ancient Near Eastern literature. With the aim of investigating some of the problems surrounding Camelus bactrianus and the little-known Bactrian-Arabian (dromedary, Camelus dromedarius) hybrids Prof. Dan Potts launched himself into the zoological and historical literature on this important animal last year with some unexpected results, as reported on in his lecture.


Professor Dan Potts is Edwin Cuthbert Hall Professor of Middle Eastern Archaeology and Curator of the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney. He is Academic Director of the Near Eastern Archaeological Foundation and has a PhD from Harvard and a DPhil from Copenhagen. He has held academic positions at Harvard, Ben Gurion University, Oxford, Copenhagen and Berlin and is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Society of Antiquaries, London. He is Founding Editor of several archaeological publications and on the editorial board of a number of others. He has been frequently interviewed in the media and has an extensive list of well-regarded publications.

Report on the General Monthly Meeting
by Jak Kelly

The camel has been important to the peoples of Asia for millennia. Images of two-humped camels have been found going back to Neolithic times. It has been asserted that parts of Siberia and the inner high plains of Mongolia would not have become inhabited but for the camel, which is happy operating at altitudes up to 4000m and capable of carrying loads of 220-270 kg for 30-40 km a day. Camels live for up to 40 years and start work at the age of four.

Archaeological evidence from rock art, shards, carvings, coins, seals and even large Chinese tomb figurines attest to the long historical social importance and value of the camel to many Asian civilisations. They were the main means of transport along the Silk Road joining east and west with the camel trains travelling in winter.

Aristotle wrote that there were two types of camel, the Bactrian with two humps, and the Dromedary, with one. Bactrian is probably a misnomer as the camels probably spread west from near China and not in the reverse direction, as has been suggested by some. The Greeks probably knew about camels from their interactions with the Persians. The Palace of Darius showed camels being presented as gifts to the king.

Camels supplied meat, hides and milk to the tribes who herded them but were mainly pack animals. They were highly prized gifts and commonly taken as booty in wars and raids. Selective breeding almost doubled the load-carrying capacity of the animals. Evidence of hybrid camels has been found in Roman Troy and early Islamic Pella in Jordan. The preferred hybrid was between a female Dromedary and a male Bactrian which produces a much larger good-tempered animal, a practice which persists to the present day.

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