Where did Hannibal cross the Alps? Follow the poop to find out

7 Apr 2016

Hannibal traversant les Alpes à dos d'éléphant, by Nicolas Poussin, via Wikimedia Commons

Irish scientists are among those who think they have uncovered the route Hannibal took his army through when crossing the Alps in the Second Punic War. To do so, they followed the dung.

Prof Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto led a team that included microbiologists from Queen’s University and geochemists from DCU, who put their heads together to work out one of the more interesting historical mysteries, the route Hannibal took before he stunned the Romans in 217 BC.

Future Human

Riding on elephants and sporting an army of up to 30,000 men, Hannibal’s surprising decision to travel from Carthage in north Africa through Spain, France, the Alps and then into Italy to defeat several Roman armies has fascinated historians for centuries.

Now, after using a combination of microbial metagenome analysis, environmental chemistry, geomorphic and pedological investigation, pollen analyses and various other geophysical techniques that don’t appear at first to scream ‘poop studies’, scientists have said they believe Col de Traversette is the crucial location that reveals the truth.

Mass animal deposition

A ‘mass animal deposition’ found there has been directly dated to 218 BC, which Dr Chris Allen, from Queens, said relates to the reported 15,000 horses and mules – as well as 37 elephants – that would have needed regular resting sites along the way.

Situated 3km above sea level, Col de Traversette was first suggested as a crossing point  over a half century ago by the biologist and polymath Gavin de Beer – with these findings adding credence to that suggestion.

“The deposition lies within a churned-up mass from a one-metre thick alluvial mire, produced by the constant movement of thousands of animals and humans,” said Allen.

Long-lasting microbes

The reason he and his team could date it is because the vast majority of the microbes in horse manure are from a group known as the Clostridia, which survive for thousands of years in soil.

“We found scientifically significant evidence of these same bugs in a genetic microbial signature precisely dating to the time of the Punic invasion.”

The last time we mentioned the Second Punic War on Siliconrepublic.com we were discussing a wonderful datavis map of 8,000 known battles throughout world history.

Hannibal Punic War

This time, though, we brought poop.

These findings are evidence, not proof, with DCU’s Dr Brian Kelleher telling the The Irish Times: “This is a strong indication, and we feel it will allow for archaeological digs to prove the route, but that costs money. We would hope to find artefacts to show Hannibal’s route.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic