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Ancient Dung May Unlock Punic War Mystery

Posted April 15, 2016 12:00 AM by joeymac

Scientists may have unlocked one of the great mysteries of the ancient world by analyzing microbes from horse manure to discover where Hannibal and his army crossed the Alps. The Carthaginian general famously led an army of 30,000 men, 37 elephants and more than 15,000 horses and mules to invade Italy. This brazen trip across the Alps happened during the second Punic War, which lasted from 218 B.C. to 201 B.C.

Hannibal's exact route across the Alps has been debated by historians. An international team of scientists have found evidence from the remote Col de Traversette pass on the border between Fance and Italy. By using radiocarbon dating, microbial metagenome analysis, environmental chemistry and pollen analysis, the scientists have shown that a "mass animal deposition" event occurred near the Col de Traversette in 218 B.C.

A little tidbit that I learned was that when horses drink, they have to defecate. Scientist studied 3 feet of sediment beneath a large pond for the horse manure. More than 70 percent of the microbes in horse manure are from a group of bacteria called Clostridia that can survive in soil for thousands of years. Scientists found a remarkable increase in the abundance of the bacteria in the sediment, suggesting that Hannibal's army crossed the Alps at that specific point. Normally these bacteria are at quite low levels within the soil, but in this case, the scientist found very high levels. The scientists also noticed an increase in the number of bile salts that come from the gut as well as a sharp change in the sediments pollen record. This pollen showed them that there is a significant change in the deposition characteristics suggesting that Hannibal crossed there. Hannibal also tried crossing using elephants but scientists are not sure how much the elephants have contributed to the evidence. Besides of a historical aspect to this, these findings may even help our understanding of modern bacteria. Scientists don't know much about bacteria from 2,000 years ago so scientists can learn how they've changed over 2,000 years and could help with medical discoveries.

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Guru
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#1

Re: Ancient dung may unlock Punic War mystery

04/15/2016 8:57 AM

Amazing that these bacteria survive for so long!

And amazing that Hannibal even considered taking the poor elephants on this trek. I went looking for a map and found some frightening pictures of the Col de Traversette area, taken by an intrepid cyclist. Those paths look way to narrow for anything the size of a modern elephant!

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: Ancient dung may unlock Punic War mystery

04/15/2016 9:09 AM

Yeah it's sad about the elephants, I think they all died on the way there except for one. The alps aren't exactly known for their elephant population. Not just the terrain but the climate killed them off during that trip.

It's amazing what conditions and how long bacteria can survive. There's bacteria that live in the boiling hot temperatures of the Yellowstone hot springs.

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Participant

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#3
In reply to #1

Re: Ancient dung may unlock Punic War mystery

04/16/2016 4:01 PM

Hi, I am the "intrepid cyclist" mentioned above. :) I registered here just to let you know the Traversette referred to as possibly a Hannibal crossing is a different, higher, even wilder Traversette, further south - near Col Agnel. Also on the Italy/French border it approaches 3000 metres. Very high for a trail/pass in the Alps

The Traversette I cycled is above Col du Petit St Bernard, which is occasionally listed as a Hannibal possible crossing point. Though seems unlikely.

For those interested in Hannibal, I have cycled over the remote unpaved Col du Clapier, another Hannibal possible crossing. It's the one that an English professor rode an elephant to a few decades ago. The local tourist office is quick to advertise.

http://www.cycling-challenge.com/col-clapier-in-the-footsteps-of-hannibal/

Regards

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#4
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Re: Ancient dung may unlock Punic War mystery

04/18/2016 2:48 PM

Thanks for sharing the feed back. That's very interesting to know.

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Guru
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#5
In reply to #3

Re: Ancient dung may unlock Punic War mystery

04/18/2016 2:53 PM

Welcome to CR4! Thanks for sharing your photos. They are beautiful and it helps give more of a sense of the area.

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#6

Re: Ancient Dung May Unlock Punic War Mystery

04/20/2016 5:17 PM

African and Asian elephants are known for being able to get rid of excess body heat in hot climates. Not so much known for their ability to retain heat in sub-zero temperatures.

Could be, Hannibal used a FEW elephants as heavy pack animals for large amounts of food, weapons, etc., with warm blankets on the elephants; then used mules/horses/oxen to carry personnel. Sounds much more practical, to me. Then, the locals tell tales of elephants being used to move his army......and here we are, trying to prove Hannibal used only elephants to traverse the Alps....

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#7

Re: Ancient Dung May Unlock Punic War Mystery

03/17/2020 3:06 AM

This is a great thing, I think everyone feels this information is very valuable, thank you happy wheels

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