Book Summary: “The Camel and the Wheel” by Richard Bulliet


Title: The Camel and the Wheel
Author: Richard Bulliet
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 2.5 stars
My personal rating: 3.5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Bulliett overviews the history of the domesticated camel and tries to explain why it largely supplanted wheeled transportation in the Middle East.

If you would like to learn more about the role of domesticated animals and transportation shaped human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

I was stunned to learn recently that the Middle East largely gave up wheeled transportation in favor of camels for 1500 years. This is a fascinating case of technological retrogression. Trying to understand why, I read this book. I would not recommend reading it unless you are very interested in the subject as it goes into exhaustive detail. I do think reading this summary is worthwhile.

Key Take-aways

  • Wheeled transportation was fairly common in the Middle East during the Roman Empire, and perhaps earlier.
  • Sometime before the Arab conquest, the region went almost entirely over to camels.
  • The invention of the North Arabian saddle was the key technological innovation that enabled wide-spread usage of camels.
  • Wheeled transportation did not come back until the 20th Century when European imperialist reintroduced motorized transportation. To this day, wagons and carts are rarely used in the region.
  • While Europe moved from pack animals to horse-drawn transportation, the Middle East went the other direction. In the short-run, this made sense, but it locked the region out of major transportation improvements that occurred laster.
  • In desert regions, camels have big advantages over other potential pack animals.
  • Not using wheeled transportation had a major impact on development in the region, including narrow, crooked streets and a under-developed road infrastructure.
  • Camels are rarely used to pull plows or wagons, although it was common in parts of India, so we know that it is possible.

Important Quotes from Book

Traditional wisdom holds the wheel to be one of mankind’s cleverest inventions and the camel to be one of God’s clumsiest.

Yet never has there been a general investigation of why a vast area of the globe encompassing some of its most advanced societies at a certain time in history abandoned its use. In fact this apparently anomalous historical event has barely even been recognized.

Roman Egypt (30 B.C. onwards) had both wagon transport and camel transport, the latter being a relatively recent and growing phenomenon.

Why did the camel replace the wheel at the particular point in history when it did, that is to say, apparently after the third and before the seventh century A.D.?

Given, for the time being, that the camel competed solely as a pack animal, numerous factors influenced the cost of transport. The most precise evaluations of the qualities of the camel as a pack animal have been made by military men in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Three independent specialists have written detailed summaries of their findings, and all have found the camel to be only slightly inferior to the mule in overall utility and decidedly more economical in care and maintenance.

And now in a few words let us sum up the special advantages of camel over ox transport.

1. Can carry or draw twice as much.

2. Faster, and able to cover more ground daily.

3. Can do from 20 to 25 miles in one stretch.

4. Will make many more journeys in a year and in their respective lifetimes.

5. Able to traverse ground that a wagon will stick in.

6. No trouble fording rivers, where wagons would have

to be unloaded.

7. [Not germane

8. Live and work four times as long.

9. Greater powers of abstinence from food and water.

10. Greater tenacitv and endurance.

11. Wagon liable t~ break down, upset, or stick. Consequent 1055 of time and additional expense in former case, besides inability or want of means to repair.

12. Lastly, the additional dead weight of the wagon, which is considerable–at least a ton, I should say.”

Additional economies could be realized from the camel’s ability to travel as efficiently without a road as with one.

Finally, a wagon required one driver for every two animals} while a single person could take care of a string of three to six camels.

Sometime between 500 and 100 B.C. a camel saddle was invented that transformed the economic, political, and social history of the Middle East.

What happened between 500 B.C. and the period when camels became dominant in the transport economy was that camel-breeding nomads acquired unprecedented military, political, and economic power and were enabled thereby to achieve a degree of social and economic integration with the settled lands that their predecessors had never dreamed of.

The means that was used was the camel-borne warrior mounted upon a North Arabian saddle.

The effect of the new developments, therefore, was to give the tribes that first utilized them, those on the northern fringes of the desert, a singular capacity to control desert trade.

The North Arabian saddle made possible new weaponry, which made possible a shift in the balance of military power in the desert, which made possible the seizure of control of the caravan trade by the camel breeders, which made possible the social and economic integration of camel-breeding tribes into settled Middle Eastern society, which made possible the replacement of the wheel by the pack camel.

In Europe, road improvement and advances in vehicular design went hand in hand. Heavy vehicles drawn by several animals meant that load size could be greatly increased over the quarter-ton limit imposed by the pack camel, but their efficiency could only be fully realized on roads that were straight, level, and paved. Consequently, the infrastructure of carriageable roads that Europe took into the period of the industrial revolution far outstripped what the Middle East had going into the twentieth century.

Given the vital role of transportation in the industrialization process, both for centralizing manufacturing and distributing manufactured goods, it is possible that this deficiency was crucial.

The camel never replaced the wheel east of the Indus because the camel was instead harnessed for pulling carts and wagons. This does not mean, of course, that pack camels were not used in India; it simply means that instances of direct competition between oxcart and pack camel could be resolved by the use of a camel cart.

Taken altogether, what the examples of Muslim Spain, Anatolia, and India demonstrate is that economic and technological factors weigh heavier than ideological or religious factors in determining the transportation economy of a particular area and that the transportation economy affects other facets of society as well.

Wheels did not really begin to return to the Middle East and North Africa until the advent of European imperialism.

Despite the camel’s superior adaptation to submarginal land, the risk factor in camel breeding is extremely high. Camels rut once a year. The gestation period is one year so that the calves are dropped during the good pasture season

which normally coincides with the rutting season. The nursing period lasts for another year thus making it impossible for a female camel to bear at a higher rate than one calf every two years. Finally, the young female camel is not normally expected to begin bearing until it is six years old.

By comparison both sheep and goats can begin bearing between one and two years of age; it is possible to breed them twice a year; and they frequently have twins. Consequently, if there is any kind of sudden drop in herd size due to adverse weather or disease, the sheep and goat herder is capable of replenishing his herds from natural increase much more rapidly than the camel herder. Historically, one outcome of this higher risk factor in camel breeding has been institutionalized raiding or rustling of stock from other tribes.

The camel converts low protein desert vegetation into meat. Plants that other meat animals will not or cannot eat afford a camel an adequate diet.

If you would like to learn more about the role of domesticated animals and transportation shaped human history, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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