The remains were uncovered by archaeologists from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni), exploring the construction site for a shopping center in the city of Tulln in 2006-2007.
"The partly excavated skeleton was at first suspected to be a large horse or cattle," archaeozoologist Alfred Galik said
. "But one look at the cervical vertebrae, the lower jaw and the metacarpal bones immediately revealed that this was a camel."
In their research, published in the journal "PLOS ONE,"
the archaeologists said Ottoman troops had besieged the area around Tulln in 1683 as they tried to reach Vienna, but that Tulln itself had never been conquered.
The Ottoman Army had a "camelry," using camels for transportation and to ride, they said. Despite their city not falling, Tulln inhabitants and the Ottomans were in contact, with historic documents referring to the invading army's peaceful surrender of two prisoners of war, the researchers said.
But they said it would be impossible to say how it got into the city.
"Its appearance might be linked to an exchange of local people with the troops or the Ottoman army simply left it behind. Apparently, the citizens took it inside the town, where they probably kept and displayed it as an 'exotic animal,'" they said. "It seems quite conceivable that being not familiar with behavioral and feeding habits, the scarcity of food in wartimes, people did not keep it for long."
While other camel bones have been found in Central Europe, the researchers said this was unique.
"It is the first complete camel skeleton found in Central Europe and Central European territories under the control of the Ottoman Empire, apart from the complete skeleton of a dromedary recovered from the sediments of the Theodosius harbor on the European part of Istanbul."
DNA analysis on the Tulln skeleton confirmed that it had been one of a hybrid species of camel, specifically a "Tulu," the offspring of dromedary female and a male with Bactrian DNA.
"The two species are able to interbreed, which results in larger, more powerful and efficient hybrid offspring," researchers said. "The camel specimen from Tulln is the first archaeozoologically and genetically confirmed evidence of a Tulu hybrid camel."
The camel was also believed to have been castrated to make it easier to handle.
The Austrians' unfamiliarity with such a beast may have led to the skeleton's preservation. As opposed to the Ottoman troops -- who would likely have eaten the camel's flesh -- the residents of Tulln apparently buried the camel whole.
"The dismemberment of the carcasses certainly is a reason for the scarce preservation of camel finds in general and is indicated by bones with butchering marks in particular. However, the citizens buried this camel in a typical post-mortal position, and together with rubbish in the remnants of a cellar that was leveled," researchers said.
In their report, the researchers said the camel was found on the site of what had been an old tavern called "Auf der Rossmuhle."
"The backfill of the cellar yielded masses of domestic refuse like animal bones and ceramics (e.g. plates, pans and flagons), pieces of a tiled stove and enameled pipe bowls which date the filling in the early modern period," they said.
A coin dating from 1643-1715 and a medicine bottle from a chemist's operating from 1628-1665 helped the team date the site. Flooding and plagues affected Tulln in the 17th century and many buildings were demolished, they said.
"Two building plots got new owners at the end of the century around the 1690, certainly the time when the cellar was backfilled, offering enough space to bury such a big cadaver in the center of the town," their report explains.
"The skeleton remained there for more than 300 years to raise questions in the future."