Back in January, we provided a detailed overview of Hannibal Barca, the greatest military general of his generation (circa late 3rd century BC). In that article, we talked about how the ‘audacity’ of the Carthaginian commander (with his ‘multinational’ force) in crossing the Alps was actually a fairly well planned endeavor that was orchestrated to create the very effect of shock-and-awe. However beyond the scale of this overland invasion via the Alps, there has always been a debate concerning the actual geographical point through which Hannibal made his ambitious military foray into Italy. In fact, the confusion regarding this passage was even touched upon by Polybius himself, who wrote an ancient account closest in time to Hannibal’s campaign. But science triumphs where conjecture fails – and this dictum is upheld by a group of microbiologists , as they may have rounded up credible evidence pertaining to the actual point/pass through which Hannibal made his way into the Italian mainland.
According to Queen’s University Belfast’s microbiologist Dr Chris Allen and his team – headed by Professor Bill Mahaney, a geomorphologist who hails from York University, Toronto; the geographical juncture through which the multinational forces of Hannibal crossed the Alps equates to the Col de Traversette pass. Interestingly, a similar hypothesis was made by biologist and polymath Sir Gavin de Beer (who was also the director of the British Museum in natural history department), but the conjecture was shot down in the academic realm more than 50 years ago. But this time around, the researchers made use of various scientific applications to back up their claim and the clues were literally found from heaps of dirt. According to Queen’s University Belfast website –
Using a combination of microbial metagenome analysis, environmental chemistry, geomorphic and pedological investigation, pollen analyses and various other geophysical techniques, the researchers have shown that a ‘mass animal deposition’ event occurred near the Col de Traversette – that can be directly dated to approximately 2168 cal yr BP, i.e. 218 BC.
To that end, the Col de Traversette pass is around 2,600 m (around 8,530 ft) above the sea-level, and such boasted of rich soil that could potentially support the flora needed by the grazing requirements of the animals like horses and pack mules. So from the strategic perspective it does makes sense that Hannibal and his presumably huge baggage train might have halted temporarily and then passed through the zone. In that regard, the logistical numbers game suggests that before crossing the Alps, the Carthaginian general had around 38,000 infantrymen; 8,000 cavalry forces; and 38 elephants.
Now as the researchers excavated the dirt in the area, they analysed how the surface soil with its peaty nature fused with plant fibers, gradually gave way to a more compact variety of soil that was mixed with a fine-grained variety. This suggests that the deeper layers of soil (at 40 cm depth) were agitated by some above ground-based pressure of a substantial scale, like the passing of throngs of animals through the zone. Consequently, the experts radiocarbon-dated these soil specimens, and to their surprise the ‘dirt’ was dated from 218 BC – the very year in which Hannibal and his army crossed the Alps.
On further laboratory assessment, the microbiologists came to the conclusion that these disturbed layers were also filled with the organic matter of horse dung remains. This crucial discovery was aided by the identification of specific DNA matter found in a type of bacteria called clostridia, usually common inside guts of horses. Moreover, the researchers have also potentially detected a particular horse tapeworm egg inside the studied samples. This can pave the way for more organic-based discoveries, including that of elephant horse tapeworm eggs.
Lastly, it should be noted that beyond the scope of microbiology, there is the entire ambit of archaeology to consider. In that regard, the study can be undoubtedly claimed as a success if the researchers come across actual physical specimens of human activity and warfare in this Alps pass – like remnants of weapons, equipment and artifacts. Until then we can only hope that this team is (literally) on the right path that could unravel the mysteries behind one of the greatest military feats of all time in humanity’s history.