History in horse shit

You’re reading that title and expecting some kind of rant, I can tell. But there’s no rant here, just a pretty cool story. I assume you’ve heard of Hannibal, yes?


What? No, not that Hannibal. I’m talking about the other Hanniba-


That’s the same Hannibal played by a different actor.

Look, do I have to call your high school history teacher? Because she’s going to be really disappointed in y-


Thank you. Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general who almost destroyed Rome during the Second Punic War. I’m sure you all knew who I was talking about and I apologize for belittling your intelligence for the sake of a joke. But just by way of a quick review, Hannibal is best-known for having led a very large (maybe as many as 100,000 strong though that seems like a big overestimate) army, including war elephants, on a march from Spain to Italy beginning in the spring of 218 BCE. His journey over the Alps, which may have cost him half of his army but took the Romans in Italy completely by surprise, is the stuff of legend, one of the most famous events in ancient and/or military history.

It’s also always been something of a mystery, because although everybody knows that Hannibal crossed the Alps, and everybody knows what happened after he crossed them, nobody has ever been able to establish the exact route he took in order to cross them. Until now, maybe. Scientists studying one of the most commonly suggested routes for Hannibal’s march, the Col de la Traversette on the French-Italian border, recently made an interesting discovery:

A study published in the journal Archaeometry shows that a “mass animal deposition” took place in the Col de Traversette, a 9,800-foot pass on the modern border between France and Italy around 200 B.C. Microbiologists from Queen’s University in Belfast sampled soil from a peaty area near the top of the pass, the type of place that an army might stop to water its horses. What they found was a disturbed layer of peat about 40 cm down that was not churned up by natural occurrences like a flock of sheep or frost, according to a press release.

A “mass animal deposition” is Polite Scientist for “a lot of animal poop.” DNA testing on samples of the, uh, deposit showed large concentrations of bacteria from the Clostridia family, which makes up 70% of the bacteria found in horse manure. The scientists also found “fatty compounds” that allowed them to conclude that the bacteria were not naturally occurring in the soil but had been left there by the digestive tracts of a whole bunch of animals. But there’s no absolute proof that these bacteria came from horses, or that, if they did, they came from Hannibal’s horses. They could have come from human feces instead, although that too would be pretty suggestive of a large army moving through the area right around the time Hannibal was making his crossing. Still, corroborating evidence is needed.

The Col de la Traversette, per Google Maps; that’s Italy to the east and France to the west
If the scientists are right about the dating, then the deposit is certainly from the right period, but that’s circumstantial, and they need to tighten up the range of possible dates in order to show that this layer accumulated in one event rather than over a period of years or decades. Ideally now they’d unearth some artifacts–weapons, coins, something–that would further suggest an army’s presence at the site and might even be specific enough to show the presence of a Carthaginian army. One of the most illuminating potential finds would be traces of elephant dung, because, of course, we know that Hannibal’s army had elephants in it and, hey, it’s not like there have been a lot of elephants traipsing through the Alps over the past few millennia. The scientists working on the site would apparently love to find an elephant tapeworm egg (I know, I’m glad I already ate dinner too), but the problem is that horses don’t abide the presence of elephants well at all, so it’s likely that Hannibal would have had to keep his elephants well clear of his horses. Figuring out where his elephant latrine was may be like finding a needle in a haystack.

If all this history sleuthing doesn’t interest you the way it does me, then there’s another interesting element to this story that you might want to consider. Per The New Yorker, studying these ancient Clostridia microbes might be useful to modern medical science:

One strain of ClostridiaC. difficile, is now resistant to most antibiotics and is rapidly spreading in hospitals and nursing homes; in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported approximately four hundred and thirty thousand related infections and twenty-nine thousand deaths in 2011. The Hannibal Clostridia findings have inspired Allen and Gill Plunkett, a paleoecologist at Queen’s University Belfast, to attempt a study of colonic samples from bog bodies. “We could look at C. difficile from humans from two thousand years ago and compare and perhaps come across, and highlight, differences and adaptations,” Allen said. “There could be really interesting implications about C. difficile that could be of direct benefit.” He went on, “This may seem to be an ancient-history story, but it may actually develop in a lot of very interesting ways.” If so, Hannibal will have sortied on a most modern battlefront.


One thought on “History in horse shit

  1. Thanks for this. If only Miss K, my beloved high school Latin instructor, could be alive to read this today.

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