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Extinct "Elephant Size" Camel Found in Syria

James Owen
for National Geographic News
October 11, 2006
 
The bones of a huge extinct camel have been discovered in Syria, a joint Swiss-Syrian team announced last week.

The previously unknown species lived about a hundred thousand years ago and was "as big as a giraffe or an elephant," the archaeologists say.

Based on comparisons between the ancient remains and modern-day counterparts, researchers estimate that the animal stood 12 feet (3.6 meters) tall, making it almost twice the size of living camels.

The scientists also found humanoid bones at the desert site near Tadmur (Palmyra) and stone tools with the camel's remains (Palmyra photo).

The finds suggest that the massive dromedary—or single-humped camel—was hunted by prehistoric people, the researchers add.

"This is a big discovery, a revolution in science," prehistory professor Jean-Marie Le Tensorer told the Reuters news service.

Le Tensorer, of the University of Basel in Switzerland, led the Swiss side of the team,

Heba al-Sakhel, of the Syrian Department of Antiquities and Museums in the capital city of Damascus, led the Syrian side of the team.

"What we want to know now is, where did it come from and why did it disappear, never to be seen again?" al-Sakhel told the Associated Press (AP).

Camel Hunt

The team first noticed fragments of the ancient camel's remains in 2003 at a site in the El Kowm area of central Syria, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) northeast of Damascus (Syria map).

But the remains weren't identified until recently, when larger fossil bones were recovered from an ancient spring that the team had been excavating.

El Kowm is an area of desert steppe that lies between two mountain ranges. The region is considered to be one of the oldest centers of human settlement in the Near East.

The University of Basel's Le Tensorer says that, at that time, the region would have been covered by savanna rather than desert and would have supported herd animals such as antelope.

Archaeological remains dating back 750,000 years suggest that prehistoric people were attracted to the springs in El Kowm.

Hunter-gatherers likely attacked and killed the giant camel when it visited one of these springs to drink, the researchers suggest.

Humanoid bones found near the camel's remains are thought to belong to modern man, Homo sapiens. But a tooth recovered from the site is similar to that of a Neandertal (often spelled "Neanderthal"), Le Tensorer says.

The bone fragments are now being analyzed in Switzerland, he says.

Ship of the Desert

According to Le Tensorer, the find suggests that dromedary camels existed in the region up to 90,000 years earlier than previously thought.

"It was not known that the dromedary was present in the Middle East more than 10,000 years ago," Le Tensorer said.

Some Syrian scientists say that the discovery shows that Syria may have been the birthplace of modern-day camels.

Bassam Jamous, head of antiquities at Syria's National Museum in Damascus, says that Tadmur is likely where these so-called ships of the desert first "emerged to the world."

(Related news: "In Sahara, Salt-Hauling Camel Trains Struggle On" [May 28, 2003].)

The camel species that lives today in the Middle East and North Africa is the Arabian camel, which is thought to have been domesticated thousands of years ago.

"Ordinary camels appeared in the region some 6,000 to 7,000 years ago," Le Tensorer told AP.

The earliest known reference to the one-humped Arabian camel is a pottery figure from Egypt, which dates back to about 3000 B.C.

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