The dromedary, or Arabian camel, has transported people and materials in the Middle East and North Africa for thousands of years. But, until now, no one had been able to determine where the distinctive, one-humped creatures were first domesticated.
In a new study, researchers from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna say they have figured it out.
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After comparing DNA of wild and early-domesticated dromedaries as much as 7,000 years old with the genetic samples of more than 1,000 modern dromedaries , the team determined that the Southeast Arabian Peninsula was the birthplace of dromedary domestication.
"Our results appear to confirm that the first domestication of wild dromedaries occurred on the southeast coast," said lead researcher Pamela Burger. "This was followed by repeated breeding of wild dromedaries with the early-domesticated populations."
Those wild ancestors of today's dromedaries, Burger noted, went extinct about 2,000 years ago.
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While most animals that are domesticated end up with less genetic diversity, as breeders repeatedly focus on specific things, Burger and her colleagues found remarkable genetic diversity in dromedaries.
DNA analysis told them that this diversity came from the nature of the dromedary's lifestyle. Long-distance travels along ancient caravan trade routes put the animals in regular touch with other populations, leading to what the scientists called "regular gene flow," of a kind usually only seen in wild animals.
It was that diversity, the researchers said, that made it historically difficult to determine which region held the ancestor of domesticated Arabian camels.
Burger and her team's findings have been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.