From the 4th through the 7th century CE, several communities flourished in the southern desert of the Land of Israel, which were abandoned after the Islamic conquest in 635 CE. Archaeologists have recently uncovered and examined masses of animal bones in this area—not only of sheep and goats, but of crocodiles and other more exotic creatures—leading them to a clearer picture of its history. David Israel writes:
In the [pre-Byzantine] period, around the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, most of the bones found were of sheep, some of chickens, and almost none of wild animals. In the middle period, [during] the peak of Byzantine expansion, most of the bones are of goats with a few pig bones as well. At the close of the Byzantine period, the end of the 6th century and the beginning of the 7th, most of the bones again belong to sheep, but with a significant increase in pig bones and bones of wild animals. . . .
[The researchers] explain that sheep require a large amount of water and grazing land, and in the desert raising sheep usually means wandering among large grazing areas—suggesting a nomadic society that raises sheep for food or for commerce. Goats need less water and grazing space, so you should raise goats in the desert when you have cultivated agriculture and can’t wander. This [implies] a more stable economy.
According to these findings, before the flourishing of the Byzantine empire, Negev society was essentially nomadic, similar to the traditional Bedouin society. At the time of the Byzantine expansion, the economy of the Negev settlements grew stronger and they turn to large-scale agricultural crops. The return to a sheep-based economy in the middle of the 6th century shows once again that during this period the agricultural communities in the Negev were beginning to decline.
This disintegration was bound to reach deterioration: the abundance of wild animal bones indicates that the sheep were no longer sufficient for the inhabitants and so they started hunting wild animals. . . . Among the bones found during this period were those of a species of a large African antelope once common in the country, mainly on the coastal plain and the northern Negev. To date, researchers have assumed that this animal became extinct in this region in the 7th century BCE.