Kamel – B.1 Antike Zoologie

There is evidence of camels being known to the Egyptians as early as 4,000 BC, to the Assyrians from 860 BC, and to Archilochus in the seventh century BC (Keller 1, 275). Moreover Herodotus (Histories, 3, 103) regards the camel as sufficiently familiar to his audience to render a physical description of it unnecessary. Nevertheless the major ancient natural historians offer numerous details about the camel, a good proportion of which would still be regarded as broadly accurate (see Gauthier-Pilters/Dagg, passim). For example, Aristotle (especially Historia animalium 2, 1; 5, 14; 8, 1, 9), Pliny (especially Naturalis historia 8, 26, 67f.), and their followers agree that the camel is a cloven-hooved, retromingent ruminant; that it can live for four days without water (Aelian – 17, 7 – erroneously inflates this figure to eight); that it gives birth to one foal at a time following a gestation period of twelve months; and that it instils fear in → horses – a phenomenon also recorded by historians such as Herodotus (7, 87) and Xenophon (Cyropaedia, 6, 2, 14; 7, 1, 27; 7, 1, 48), and confirmed by some modern zoologists (see Gauthier-Pilters/Dagg, p. 128). Moreover Aristotle (2, 1) and Pliny (8, 26, 67) distinguish correctly between the two-humped Bactrian camel (camelus bactrianus) and the one-humped Arabian (camelus dromedarius), though Solinus (49, 9) and Isidore of Seville (12, 1, 35) confuse the two, and the latter regards the dromedary as a separate species, characterized by its exceptional running speed; the dromedary is faster, indeed, than a → horse, with whose speed that of a normal camel is often equated (e.g. by Pliny, 8, 26, 68, and Herodotus, 7, 86). There is also confusion as to the camel’s life-span (nowadays regarded as about 40 years – Gauthier-Peters/Dagg, p. 77): Aristotle (8, 9) states that it normally lives to 30, whereas Pliny (10, 68) cites 50 to 100 years, and Solinus (49, 11) and Aelian (4, 55) 100 at least.

Ancient military historians say little that contradicts these details – though Herodotus’s apparently independent description of the camel’s back legs (3, 103) is inaccurate (see Pauly 6, 222). They do refer, however, to various functions performed by camels in warfare. They were above all beasts of burden (e.g. Herodotus 1, 80), but were also used as mounts (Xenophon indeed attests – 6, 2, 8 – to two archers riding on the same camel) and as scarers of → horses; and they were often taken as booty (e.g. Xenophon 6, 1, 30).

Elsewhere there is considerable evidence of caravans of camels being used to transport goods along the major Eastern trade routes (Pauly 6, 222), of the animals’ presence at Roman games (Pauly 6, 223, Keller 1, 277), of their employment on imperial postal duties (Keller 1, 276), and indeed of their being eaten by Persians as a delicacy at birthday celebrations (Herodotus 1, 133).

Lit.: O. KELLER: Antike Tierwelt 1, 1909, 275–7; Der neue Pauly, 6, 221–3; H. GAUTHIER-PILTERS/ A. I. DAGG: The Camel. Its Evolution, Ecology, Behavior, and Relationship to Man, 1981.

Nigel Harris

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