Camel bones found to be 6,000 years old

The skeletons in the Western Region represent the largest sample of ancient wild camel bones discovered in Arabia.

The remains of an ancient camel skeleton discovered at Baynunah.
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ABU DHABI // In a shadowy depression between sand dunes deep in the western region of Abu Dhabi, an excited team of archaeologists has found an ancient camel graveyard believed to be thousands of years old. More than 60 skeletons were found late last month by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach). Three were on the surface, the rest under the sand. The remains are being examined by the Kiel Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Germany. Specialists today confirmed the bones were more than 6,000 years old and came from wild animals. Archaeologists will now study the bones for information about the age, sex, growth, development and manner of death of the camels, to see how the discovery can add to what is already known about the species.

Dr Mark Beech, cultural landscapes manager at the historic environment department at Adach, said: "The site stretches over 100 square metres and it is the largest discovery of ancient wild camel bones so far in the area. It provides a fantastic opportunity to examine the history of the camel in the Arabian peninsula." There are conflicting theories as to why so many camels died in this place. Initial investigations by Dr Beech and his team suggest that they had not been killed for meat, as their legs were still in place and would have been removed if they had been butchered. However, traces of flint arrowheads have been found all over the site, suggesting it was a hunting ground. Geological history shows the area, just south of the old Baynunah forest, was covered in lakes between 9,000 and 6,000 years ago. This could mean the site was an ancient watering hole, explaining the large congregation of camels, but not why they died. One possible explanation might be a temporary but catastrophic deterioration in climate - perhaps a flash flood - which killed them off.

Dr St John Simpson, a curator at the British Museum, said once the remains had been closely dated, they could provide important clues about the history of the camel. "It is a mystery as to why all these animals died in the same place at the same time but it is fascinating for archaeologists because it gives us a very clear idea of the size and shape of camels at one moment in time," he said. "This can provide a lot of information about the orthology of camels and ultimately help us discover more about their evolution." Orthology describes the genes in different species that derive from a common ancestor. "The key thing is to chart these camels on the existing archaeological timeline," said Dr Simpson. "It is expected that they will fall somewhere between the time when camels were hunted in the wild and when they were fully domesticated." Domestication of camels in the region is thought to have started in the territory of what is now the UAE. Although native to Asia and Africa, the beasts originated in North America over 40 million years ago. Previous research suggested the camel was first domesticated during the Bronze Age, about 4,000 years ago, but archaeologists now believe it occurred as recently as during the Iron Age, or about 900BC. However, these theories have yet to be confirmed, which is why the latest discovery is so important. By tracing the history of wild camels in the region, archaeologists hope to move a step closer to learning where and when the animal was domesticated. Dr Ulrich Wernery, director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, differs from the view of Dr Beech and believes the site was an ancient slaughterhouse. "I'm sure the camels did not die of natural causes or from a disease," he said. "I think this graveyard shows the habits of the local people. They would have targeted the camels for their meat, which was a great source of protein. It is helpful to show what people ate but it still leaves the question of camel domestication unanswered." It would, he said, "be some time before we unravel this mystery. But I am confident as more and more discoveries are made we will start to close the gap."