Monday, April 04, 2016

A ghost elephant trail in the Alps?

PUNIC WATCH: The truth about Hannibal’s route across the Alps. How exactly did the Carthaginian general and his elephants reach Italy? Scientists have got their hands dirty to come up with an answer (Philip Ball, The Observer [Guardian]).
The battles didn’t end with Scipio’s victory, though. Much ink, if not blood, has been spilled in furious arguments between historians over the precise route that Hannibal took across the Alps. The answer makes not a blind bit of difference to the historical outcome, but there’s clearly something about that image of elephants on snowy peaks that makes experts care deeply about where exactly they went.

An international team of scientists now thinks the puzzle is largely solved. Its leader, geomorphologist Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, began pondering the question almost two decades ago by looking at geographical and environmental references in the classical texts. He and his colleagues have just revealed surprising new evidence supporting their claim to have uncovered Hannibal’s path.


The researchers rolled up their sleeves and dug into the mire. What they found was mud. And more mud. Not very informative, you might think. But mud can encode secrets. Taking an army of tens of thousands, with horses and elephants, over the Alps would have left one heck of a mess. More than two millennia later, Mahaney might have found it.

The peaty material is mostly matted with decomposed plant fibres. But at a depth of about 40cm this carbon-based material becomes much more disturbed and compacted, being mixed up with finer-grained soil. This structure suggests that the bog became churned up when the layer was formed. That’s not seen in any other soils from alpine bogs, and isn’t easily explained by any natural phenomenon such as grazing sheep or the action of frost. But it’s just what you’d expect to see if an army with horses and elephants passed by – rather like the aftermath of a bad year at the Glastonbury festival. This soil can be radiocarbon-dated – and the age comes out almost spookily close to the date of 218BC attested by historical records as the time of Hannibal’s crossing.

The researchers then took samples of this disturbed mud back to the lab, where they used chemical techniques to identify some of its organic molecules. These included substances found in horse dung and the faeces of other ruminants. There’s some of this stuff throughout the mire mud, but significantly more in the churned-up layer.
Suggestive, if not yet quite conclusive, evidence for the route of Hannibal's army through the Alps.

There are many past PaleoJudaica posts on Hannibal and the Punic Wars. See, for example, here, here, here, and links