Historical story

In the footsteps of Hannibal's elephants through the Alps

Where did Hannibal cross the Alps? This question has fascinated people for centuries. Researchers believe they have found new evidence for the crossing via Col de la Traversette. The large amount of horse droppings found from the time of Hannibal could indicate the presence of his famous army of elephants.

One of the most imaginative stories from antiquity is the journey of the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barkas across the Alps. During the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) between the powerful cities of Chartago (located near present-day Tunis in Tunisia) and Rome, Hannibal wanted to enter Italy from the Iberian Peninsula via the Alps. Dozens of elephants formed part of his huge army during this campaign. These elephants were used to break enemy ranks and crush soldiers.

The presence of these huge beasts must have made a huge impression in Europe and made this tour so famous. Unfortunately for the elephants, it soon became clear that the icy Alps were not part of their natural habitat. Many of them did not survive the grueling journey.

Fossil manure

The Roman Titus Livius and the Greek Polybios (203 BC – 120 BC) have described this journey. Their description of the pass to pass could refer to the French Col de la Traversette (2580 meters above sea level), some scientists think. The first to mention this pass as a crossing location was evolutionary biologist Gavin de Beer (1899 – 1972) in the 1950s, but due to lack of evidence and the height of the pass, he had few supporters.

This now seems to have changed. An international team of scientists led by Professor Bill Mahaney (York University, Toronto) has now shown that there is a disproportionate amount of horse dung near Col de la Traversette. This dung appears after carbon dating (C-14) around 218 BC. to be pooped out. Since thousands of horses and mules accompanied Hannibal according to the historical sources, this could indicate his army.

Is this conclusive proof of the presence of Hannibal and his army? dr. Barbara Gravendeel, evolutionary biologist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center and lecturer at Hogeschool Leiden, softens this. “The investigators suggest that Hannibal's army crossed the Alps via the Col de la Traversette. They base this on the tradition that this army consisted of 30,000 soldiers, 15,000 horses and mules and a few dozen 'war elephants':this could explain the large amount of fossil dung in these strata. Moreover, by analyzing so-called control samples from the environment, it can be ruled out that this is modern manure. Such as coming from the alpine marmot, chamois and ibex still found in the area.”

Examine poop

The researchers used chemical biomarkers, indicators of a particular biological state, to identify horse manure from excavations. Gravendeel:“This is a validated method. Their DNA analysis of microbes in fossil manure is also on the rise. Perhaps it is good to note that those microbes are really dead 2000 years later. Based on the DNA remains in the sediment, we can only conclude that 2000 years ago, a great deal of horse manure with accompanying bacteria was present at this location for a short time. The authors now have to perform DNA analyzes to determine, for example, the geographical origin of the horse manure.”

The study is incomplete for several reasons. Because where are the elephants in this story? Gravendeel:“Personally I would advise to see if DNA traces of elephant dung can still be found. We also do these analyzes ourselves to find out the producer of fossil turds. If you find DNA remains of an elephant among the fossil dung, you can be 100% sure that Hannibal's army came here. However, the chance of this is small, because according to historical sources most elephants did not survive the grueling journey through the Alps.”

- Livy AUC XXI, 32 – 38, Hannibal crosses the Alps