For many people, camels bring to mind a picture of far-off places. They may envision the animals trudging through the sands of the Middle East, carrying passengers across dried brown particles baking in the sun. For most of human history, wild camels could only be found in Africa and Asia, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, camels did not always live on these continents but entered the regions from North America, where these animals originally started.
Fossils are wonderful things. They are a picture into our past, and we can learn the very history of animals by studying the fossilized remains they leave behind. It is these very fossils that tell us the strange origin of camels, and it is through these fossils that we can trace their migration from North American to the sands of the Middle East where they reside today.
Through the fossil record, we have learned that the earliest camel to exist was the Protylopus. This tiny camel was only about the size of a rabbit and lived about 45 million years ago in the woodlands of modern-day South Dakota. From this original genus, camels evolved for millions of years and spread across North America. About 4 million years ago, the Procamelus, which was a genus of camel that is the direct ancestor of all modern camels, spread across North and South America. Eventually, Procamelus migrated over the Bering land bridge and entered Asia where it spread across the continent and evolved into the camels we see today.
As humans entered North and South America via the same land bridge that brought camels to Asia, much of the megafauna in the Americas died out, including camels. The last camel native to the Americas was Camelops hesternus, and it died out around 10,000 years ago.