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The Role of Camels in Africa

Being widely used as a perfect means of transportation in desert areas, camels are extremely popular nowadays in Africa. Somalis have forty-six different words for the camel (Zijlma). The popularity of camels as a transportation means has its historical background.

The Impact of the Introduction of Camels on Migration in Africa

According to Oxford dictionary, migration is a "movement of peoples to a new order to find... better living conditions" ("Migration"). Being the cradle of humanity, African continent experienced several waves of migration. In fact, camels played a significant role in the above-mentioned phenomenon.

There are different hypotheses about the exact period of the introduction of camels to Africa. Some researchers claim that people domesticated camels about 3000 BP in East Africa. Roger Blench and Kevin MacDonald note that camels appeared in northern Ethiopia at Goberda between 7000-3000 BP. In northern Kenia at Ele Bor, these animals are suggested to have appeared about 6000 -4000 BP (Blench and MacDonald 211). Zijlma argues that African 'dromedary' camel was tamed approximately 4,000 years ago (Zijlma). In his turn, Bulliet focuses on the material proofs of that epoch. He notes, "supporting evidence comes from rock art, where overlaps of images imply that camel riders in desert costume constitute the latest Saharan population. The camel-oriented images are decidedly the crudest to be found in the region." (Bulliet at al. 198) Carter claims that, in Egypt, camels appeared approximately between the fifth and the fourth centuries BC, when Persian and Hellenistic ruling was established in the area. Later, approximately in 46 BC, people started breeding camels in North Africa. After the Roman invasion, camel breeding increased. As a result, Berber tribes could easily migrate through the Sahara desert (Carter). Bulliet highlights that the first remarks about camels in North Africa are found in the Latin text dated 46 BC. The researcher suggests, "since the native camels of Africa probably died out before the era of domestication, the domestic animals most likely reached the Sahara from Arabia, probably by way of Egypt around 200 B.C.E." (Bulliet at al. 198) The animals might have been tamed by pastoral tribes "further to the west, from one central Saharan highland to the next, only much later spreading northward and coming to the attention of the Romans" (Bulliet at al. 198).

Bulliet states that camels appeared in North Africa due to Arabian peoples who used these animals for many years. This event significantly transformed the way of life of the Berber cultures. Camels could be taken deep into the Sahara desert, where other animals could not survive. Therefore, the Berber tribes did not dependent on their farmlands. This phenomenon caused migration, when the Berber tribes became pastoral nomads. Later, "horse and camel herders joined these groups. Camel-riding nomads most likely pioneered the trans-Saharan trade-routs, linking North African and sub-Saharan trade networks" (Bulliet 198). They lived in short-term dwellings, migrating and finding new favorable pastures. Migration "relates to the way goods, services, social and cultural practices, and knowledge are spread throughout the world. Two other migration patterns, the Bantu Migration and the African slave trade, help define the cultural geography of the continent" ("Africa: Human Geography"). This migration together with the capacity to cross the Sahara changed these tribes and the whole African continent ("Exploring Africa" ). In fact, it contributed to more intensive spreading of slavery on the African territory. To illustrate, Curtin notes that slavery and the slave commerce were significant and became the specific feature of African migrations since the fifth century AD, when camels first appeared in the Sahara desert ( Curtin 13).

The Impact of Introduction of Camels on Trade in Africa

Exploring the ancient history of East Africa, Manning suggests using the term 'commercial revolution' in terms of the trading phenomenon, caused by the introduction of camels into the African continent. He writes, "analyzing the history of East Africa in the era from 1000 BCE to 500 CE.... the term 'commercial revolution' was appropriate as a description of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the adjoining lands." (Manning 88) The researcher stresses that, replacing wheeling carts, the introduction of camels contributed to the invention and development of key trade institutions during the time when informal exchange of goods was ousted by formal trade, involving money, traders, and specialised markets with trade taxes (Manning 88-89).

Adoption of camels played a significant social and cultural role. In fact, other pack animals could not be compared to camels. They give four times more milk (Blench and MacDonald 214). These 'ships of desert' sweat only when the temperature of the air exceeds 106 degrees. They can develop speed about 65 km/h (Zijlma). They can travel without water for several days, keeping their footing in the sand (Donn). Camels are well adapted to travelling in deserts. They "can drink up to 20 gallons of water in 10 minutes and store it in their bloodstream ... Camels can eat thorn bushes, do not sink into the sand, can walk 25 miles a day and carry 330 pounds of cargo (Africa South of the Sahara 299). Possessing such unique qualities, besides giving meat, milk, wool and leather, camels were widely used as the means of transportation. As a result of the domestication and further migration of African tribes, Trans-Saharan commerce network appeared. Due to the introduction of camels, commerce routes were established across the Sahara desert, connecting different parts of African continent. They transported heavy blocks of salt, copper, iron, and other goods through the sands (Zijlma). In fact, salt was estimated as highly as gold. Africans needed salt as a key element saving their lives. It was used to prevent food from decaying. However, the southern part of African continent lacked this mineral (Africa South of the Sahara 298).

Since the eighth century, trade routes between the Maghreb and the Sahel have developed due to involving camels as pack animals. West Africa abounded with gold and tropical products, such as kola nuts. Copper and salt could be found in North Africa, and the Sahara being on the safe side, merchants crossed the desert in caravans as the travel was rather risky (Carter). In fact, the integration of camels contributed to the Trans-Saharan trade that developed into a significant commercial network both at regional and global levels. The flourishing trade was conducted between African inhabitants and the Mediterranean, the Near East, and Europe supplying Africa with luxury things like glassware. Some researchers note that the lively trade could be observed in West Africa before the development of Trans-Saharan commerce with caravan trade. To illustrate, "the ancient city of Jenne-Jeno has yielded evidence of trading in iron and copper within West Africa before the arrival of significant northern influences." Nevertheless, their opponents argue that the regular caravan trade contributed to the development of a lively trade at the regional level when iron and copper of North Africa were exchanged to West African gold.

Researchers note that commerce on the continent developed with the introduction of camels by the Arabian peoples. "Using camels, salt traders could carry goods from the savannas and forests across the desert to Northern Africa. There, they could trade for goods from Europe and Asia, such as glass from Italy or cotton and spices from India." (Africa South of the Sahara 298)

Conclusion: Tracing back the ancient history of the African continent, researchers have different opinions as for the exact time of the introduction of camels into the region. Some experts state that this event took place about 3000 BP, others claim that it happened earlier, or later. Despite their different viewpoints, scientists agree on one: the introduction of camels to Africa has made a significant influence on internal migration and trade, both at regional and global levels. On the one hand, this phenomenon had beneficial effects. Unlike other animals, camels can easily stand the arid African climate and survive without water during several days. Therefore, camels were widely used as a means of transportation across the sands of the Sahara desert. This capacity contributed to migrations of people and further development of trade. It was a revolutionary breakthrough in the ancient history of Africa. Merchants established regular commerce connecting northern and western parts of Africa. Although, some researchers state that the brisk development of commerce had existed before the introduction of camels within West Africa. Other scientists state that that commerce could not be compared to the flourishing trading relations after the introduction of camel caravans. Researchers draw the public attention that Trans-Saharan trade made a revolutionary break in the trade relations both within the continent, at the regional level, and contributed to the development of commerce at the global level. Nevertheless, scientists focus on the gross negative consequence of the introduction of camels in Africa. This evidence contributed to massive human migrations on the African area, connected with the slave trade.

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