7 Apr 2016

Ancient horse poo solves mystery of Hannibal

1:32 pm on 7 April 2016

A 2000-year-old sample of horse faeces has solved an ancient mystery - what route did Carthaginian General Hannibal's army of men, horses and elephants take across the snow-covered Alps to surprise unsuspecting Roman forces?

Carthaginian General Hannibal led an army of 40,000 men, as well as horses and elephants across the Alps.(No known copyright restrictions)

Photo: INTERNET ARCHIVE BOOK IMAGES/ via Wikimedia Commons

Historians have long argued over how the Carthaginian commander-in-chief pulled off this tactical masterstroke that almost saw him conquer the might of Rome.

It was, by most assessments, one of the greatest military feats in history.

The daring march was made from Spain via the French and Italian Alps, with an army numbering close to 40,000 men as well as thousands of their horses, and dozens of war elephants - regarded as the tanks of classical warfare.

The Romans had thought the Italian peninsula was almost impregnable from the north so Hannibal's surprise attack caught them completely unprepared.

York University Toronto professor Bill Mahaney led the international team that retraced Hannibal's journey across the Alps, the exact route of which has long been a source of controversy.

But, the team's discovery of a 2000-year-old horse dung sample, found on a remote mountain pass known as the Col de la Traversette, has scientists convinced they have found answers.

"This is very possibly the first time that dung and bacteria have ever been used as artefacts.

"One of the key environmental parameters was to find a blocking rock fall on these sides of the mountain, the Italian side. That led me to look at [the course] and watering places and foraging places for his animals and his troops," Prof Mahaney said.

Team hopes analysis will also yield evidence of elephant dung

The team then found a peatland swamp by the side of a stream and began to record data from it.

"We pulled the data out and started to look at it and to my great amazement, we found a churned up layer.

"There's only two things that are going to churn a peatland - it's a hell of a lot of people or animals moving around over the top of it, or frost.

"So then I got interested in getting a microbiologist on board to start looking at bacteria in this because if we had animals doing this, there will be a lot of dung," Prof Mahaney said.

Queen's University Belfast microbiologist Chris Allen said after surveying the whole site, very few places were found where General Hannibal could have watered an army that large.

"We've sampled and used microbiology and chemistry and some pollen analysis to show which route he took," he said.

The team hoped their analysis of the churned up mud found on the mountain pass may yet yield evidence of elephant dung as well, something that would silence any remaining doubters.

In the meantime, Mr Allen said, sifting through millennia-old faecal matter had also yielded other surprising benefits.

"We've learnt an awful a lot about the history and at the same time, we've been able to develop some very nice techniques for analysing soil, analysing sediments for key microorganisms that could be involved in lots of different things," he said.