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April 06, 2016

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Scientists use poop to retrace famed invasion against Rome

April 6, 2016
Courtesy of Queen's University, Belfast
and World Science staff

Sci­en­tists have used an­i­mal drop­pings to solve the mys­tery of the route fol­lowed by one of his­to­ry’s most fa­mous mil­i­tary in­va­sions.

The study re-examined one of his­to­ry’s great enig­mas: Where did the ar­my of Han­ni­bal, a gen­er­al from North Af­ri­ca, cross the Alps to in­vade It­a­ly? Sci­en­tists fo­cused on horse and oth­er an­i­mal drop­pings that would have left mi­crobes in the soil—and found that some of those mi­crobes have de­scen­dants still liv­ing right there.

A Google Maps image show­ing Col de Tra­ver­sette pass in the Alps, along the bord­er be­tween  mo­dern France and Italy.  (Cour­tesy of Goo­gle Maps)


Han­ni­bal led an ar­my from Car­thage, a city-state near mod­ern Tu­nis, dur­ing what is known as the Sec­ond Pu­nic War with Rome, from 218 to 201 B.C. 

It was one of a se­ries of three wars that ul­ti­mately left Rome with a dra­mat­ic­ally ex­pand­ed ter­ri­to­ry, but did­n’t al­ways go well for Rome.

Han­ni­bal, said to have sworn a blood oath against Rome as a small child at his fa­ther’s com­mand, led his force—30,000 men, 37 ele­phants and over 15,000 hors­es and mules—across the Alps and brought the Ro­man ar­my to its knees. 

While the Ro­mans ul­ti­mately re­bounded to de­feat Han­ni­bal at Za­ma near Car­thage in 202 B.C., his­to­ri­ans con­sid­er Han­ni­bal’s cam­paign one of the most bril­liant mil­i­tary feats of an­ti­qu­ity. 

But the gen­er­al’s route across the Alps has re­mained shrouded in mys­tery, with states­men and schol­ars ar­gu­ing about it for over 2,000 years.

In the stu­dy, pub­lished on­line this week in the jour­nal Ar­chae­o­m­e­try, mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist Chris Al­len at Queen’s Un­ivers­ity Bel­fast in Ire­land and col­leagues, led by Bill Ma­haney of York Un­ivers­ity in To­ron­to, con­clud­ed that Han­ni­bal’s forc­es probably crossed the Alps at a place known as the Co­l de Tra­ver­sette pass.

This cross­ing point, 3,000 me­ters (al­most 10,000 feet) high, was first pro­posed over a half cen­tu­ry ago by the bi­ol­o­gist and pol­y­math Sir Gav­in de Beer, but his the­o­ry has­n’t won wide ac­cept­ance.

Us­ing a com­bina­t­ion of tech­niques, in­clud­ing pol­len anal­y­sis and ge­nome anal­y­sis of soils, Ma­haney and col­leagues con­clud­ed that a “mass an­i­mal de­po­si­tion”—in oth­er words, a whole lot of poop­ing—oc­curred at the just right place and time to back up de Beer.

The mass dep­o­si­tion was dat­ed to 218 B.C. 

“The dep­o­si­tion lies with­in a churned-up mass from a one-meter thick al­lu­vi­al mire [a type of soil], pro­duced by the con­stant move­ment of thou­sands of an­i­mals and hu­mans,” Al­len ex­plained. 

“Over 70 percent of the mi­crobes in horse ma­nure are from a group known as the Clos­trid­ia, that are very sta­ble in soil—sur­viv­ing for thou­sands of years. We found sci­en­tif­ic­ally sig­nif­i­cant ev­i­dence of these same bugs in a ge­net­ic mi­crobial sig­na­ture pre­cisely dat­ing to the time of the Pu­nic in­va­sion.”


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Scientists have used animal droppings to solve the mystery of the route followed by one of history’s most famous military invasions. The study re-examined one of history’s great enigmas: Where did the army of Hannibal, a general from North Africa, cross the Alps to invade Italy? Scientists focused on horse and other animal droppings that would have left microbes in the soil—and found that some of those microbes have descendants still living right there. Hannibal led an army from Carthage, a city-state near modern Tunis, during what is known as the Second Punic War with Rome, from 218 to 201 B.C. It was one of a three-part series of wars that ultimately left Rome with a dramatically expanded territory, but didn’t always go well for Rome. Hannibal, said to have sworn a blood oath against Rome as a small child at his father’s command, led his force—30,000 men, 37 elephants and over 15,000 horses and mules—across the Alps and brought the Roman army to its knees. While the Romans ultimately rebounded to defeat Hannibal at Zama near Carthage in 202 B.C., historians consider Hannibal’s campaign one of the most brilliant military feats of antiquity. But the general’s route across the Alps has remained shrouded in mystery, with statesmen and scholars arguing about it for over 2,000 years. In the study, published online this week in the Journal Archaeometry, microbiologist Chris Allen at Queen’s University Belfast in Ireland and colleagues, led by Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, concluded that Hannibal’s forces probably crossed the Alps at a place known as the Col de Traversette pass. This crossing point, 3,000 meters (almost 10,000 feet) high, was first proposed over a half century ago by the biologist and polymath Sir Gavin de Beer, but his theory hasn’t won wide acceptance. Using a combination of techniques, including pollen analysis and genome analysis of soils, Mahaney and colleagues concluded that a “mass animal deposition”—in other words, a whole lot of pooping—occurred at the just right place and time to back up de Beer. The mass deposition was dated to 218 B.C. “The deposition lies within a churned-up mass from a one-meter thick alluvial mire [a type of soil], produced by the constant movement of thousands of animals and humans,” Allen explained. “Over 70 per cent of the microbes in horse manure are from a group known as the Clostridia, that are very stable in soil—surviving for thousands of years. We found scientifically significant evidence of these same bugs in a genetic microbial signature precisely dating to the time of the Punic invasion.”