Camel Country: Where have all our camelops gone?

Camelops hesternus at the George Page Museum

Camelops hesternus at the George Page Museum

Part of Arizona lore taught to schoolchildren is the story of Hadj Ali, thought to be a Greek-Syrian or perhaps Jordanian, who was a camel wrangler.

Better known as "Hi Jolly," he was the leader and best known of eight camel drivers hired by the U.S Army in 1856. A legend in the desert community of Quartzsite, Hi Jolly was hired to experiment with breeding camels in the Arizona desert. According to 'Collections and Stories of American Muslims,' he had already worked as a camel driver for the Ottoman Armed Forces and for the French Army in Algiers.

At the time, Americans had acquired 33 camels in Tunis, Egypt and Smyrna for the fledgling U.S. Army Camel Corps. In the American southwest, the camels were to be trained as beasts of burden to cross the "Great American Desert." But, after only a single successful round trip from Texas to California, the Camel Corps was dissolved because burros, mules and horses didn't mix and were spooked by the much larger animals. In 1864, the camels were auctioned off in Benicia, Calif., and from Camp Verde.

Bob Boze Bell, True West Magazine publisher and illustrator, recently drew up his interpretation of the camel conflict.

Actually, the camel in America got its start long, long before Hadj Ali ever saw the sands of Arizona. As surprising as it may seem, both the camel family and the horse family originated in North America, with the camel evolving into today's South America and across the Beringia land bridge into Asia and the Middle East. Camels are no longer found in native populations in the United States.

The 2004 Science publication "assessing the causes of the Late Pleistocene Extinctions on the Continents" details the 33 genera of megafauna that became extinct during the last 50,000 years. Gone are the well-known beasts like mastodons and mammoth, an American lion that was larger than the current African lion, a sabre-tooth cat, tapir and others. There were also several species of the American horse (Equus), North American llamas and our Western Camel (camelops hersternus).

While about half of these extinctions occurred shortly after the arrival of the Clovis people, about 11,500 to 11,000 years before present, only about a half dozen small animals became extinct during the same period.

The Clovis people, defined by their distinctly fluted spear points, today are useful in dating the age of ancient fossils. Clovis kill sites have been documented Arizona, in the Flagstaff area as well as in Southern Arizona.

The native Western camel was a tall beast, standing about seven feet at the shoulder. The Western camel evolved in North America about 45 million years ago in the late Pliocene epoch. It survived until about 10,000 years ago, during the Earth's last ice age and eventually migrated to Asia, Africa and South America taking on different forms. North America was also the original home of the horse species. They evolved here, and thrived for millions of years.

The jaw of a camelops has been found in Skull Valley, southwest of Prescott.

Perhaps the most complete camel skeleton in Arizona was recovered April 28, 2007, in Mesa. It was widely reported that workers digging at the future site of a Wal-Mart store in suburban Mesa unearthed the bones of a prehistoric camel estimated to be 10,000 years old.

Arizona State University Geology Museum curator Brad Archer got the news that the owner of a nursery was carefully excavating bones found at the bottom of a hole being dug for a new ornamental citrus tree.

"There's no question that this is a camel; these creatures walked the land here until about 8,000 years ago, when the same event that wiped out a great deal of mammal life took place," Archer told The Arizona Republic.

Wal-Mart officials and Greenfield Citrus Nursery owner John Babiarz agreed that the bones were to go directly on display at ASU.

"In my 15 years at ASU doing this work I can think of six or seven times when finds this important have been made," Archer said. "This is the first camel. Others have been horses, one a mammoth on Happy Valley Road. This sort of thing is extremely rare."

The bones remain at the ASU Museum of Geology in Tempe.

Archeologist with the American Museum of Natural History and the Sonora Desert Museum, Ron Ratchevich, now free lance writer, reports that the Clovis people became successful hunters, often killing mammoth, mastodons, huge bison, horses and camels throughout the great plains of North America and into Northern Mexico. They found it much easier, and far less dangerous to "finish off" calves or young individuals who were "venturing away from the protection of the herd for the first time, especially if they were mired in the mud of some sort of swamp, injured, or immobilized in a pit trap. At several sites in Cochise County, Arizona, the distinctive Clovis spear points have been found in association with bones of bison, camel, tapir, bear, and horse in addition to mammoth.

The Arizona Archeological Society says the megafauna found around the Prescott region include the Columbian Mammoth discovered within the city limits, the American Mastodon in Kirkland, Bison Antiquis in Prescott, and the camel Camelops Hersternus in Skull Valley.

A Camelops upper arm bone was found in Gilbert along with Colombian mammoth bones excavated during development of a water treatment facility.

As chief curator of natural history at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, Robert McCord has been called in at least twice to excavate prehistoric fossils unearthed at Gilbert constructions sites.

For comparison, dinosaurs typically depicted in cartoons and movies became extinct about 65 million years ago.

"People probably saw these (camels)," McCord said.

A park to memorialize the find is called Discovery Park in Gilbert.

Archeologists continue to find camel bones in the path of migration. In March of this year, researchers scratching in the sediment during the historic expansion of the Panama Canal say they have discovered the fossils of a small camel with a long crocodile-like snout that roamed the tropical rain forests of the isthmus some 20 million years ago.

The ancient camel had no hump and one of the two species found appeared to stand only about two feet tall, scientists reported in a recently published article in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

There are also finds of ancient Western camels in the Northwest, Canada and Alaska.

The Western camel is more closely related to the smaller llama now common in South America.

There are six members of the family Camelidae, today but only two are 'true camels.' One lives in Asia and the other in Arabia and North Africa. The two-humped camel known as the Bactrian and the Arabian one-humped camel known as the dromedary.

Camels have also been introduced into Australia. The other four members of the family are better known to us perhaps as llamas in South America.


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