The domestication of camels 3,000 years ago was a crucial social and economic development for our ancestors.

The use of camels as transportation led to the opening of longer trade routes, as well as the free-flow of ideas, money, and goods. It was effective mainly because these animals traveled faster than donkeys and mules.

Considering the impact of these tamed animals on society, how were camels themselves - particularly one-humped camels - affected by domestication? A new scientific study delves deeper into the matter.

How Human Trade Routes Influenced Camel Genetics

Although camels have been essential in human societies, little is known about their genetic diversity and evolutionary history.

With that, a group of scientists decided to examine DNA samples from 1,083 living dromedaries. They compared these with ancient DNA samples taken from both early-domesticated and wild counterparts.

The one-humped camels in the study originated from different locations, including various regions in southern Asia, Australia, and the Arabic Peninsula. Some of the DNA samples were from Pakistan, West Africa, West Syria, and Oman.

Despite the disparities in origin, however, researchers found unusually similar genetics across the continents.

How so? Dr. Olivier Hanotte, a co-author of the study, says that some sort of genetic shuffling had occurred along trade routes in the last centuries.

"[B]y analysing dromedaries, we can find a signature of our own past," says Hanotte.

Camels For Transportation

Hanotte, who is a genetics and conservation professor at Nottingham University, explains that camels had moved with people through trading.

When the use of dromedaries was adopted, trade caravans that sometimes made up of animals transported goods across deserts in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa.

Here is what most likely happened: owners traveled hundreds of miles on their camels, carrying with them precious goods.

When the travelers reached the Mediterranean, the camels would be exhausted. Travelers would then leave the exhausted camels behind to recover and take new ones for the return journey, says Hanotte. This led to centuries of genetic shuffling.

What's more important, says Hanotte, is that the shuffling made sure that camels maintained their genetic diversity, or the constant mixing up of the animal's population.

Because of this, dromedaries are more likely to be more adaptable amid a shifting environment and the effects of climate change, which is characterized by extreme weather patterns, rising temperatures, and areas turning unsuitable for livestock.

So instead of using cattle, sheep, and goats that are less adapted, dromedaries become better options for livestock production of milk and meat, adds Hanotte.

The details of the study are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Photo: David Amsler | Flickr

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