05 Apr 2016

Microbiology Used to Trace Hannibal’s Crossing of the Alps

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HannnibalAlps

Chris Allen, at Phys Org, describes how microbiologists are using the bacteria in horse manure to attempt to identify the route used by Hannibal’s Carthaginians to cross the Alps and invade Italy.

Despite thousands of years of hard work by brilliant scholars, the great enigma of where Hannibal crossed the Alps to invade Italy remained unsolved. But now it looks like we may just have cracked it – all thanks to modern science and a bit of ancient horse poo. As a microbiologist, I was part of the team that carried out the research.

Hannibal was the leader of the Carthaginian army during the Second Punic War with Rome (218-201BC). He famously led his 30,000 assorted troops (including 37 elephants and over 15,000 horses) across the Alps to invade Italy – bringing the Roman war machine to its knees. While the great general was ultimately defeated after 16 years of bloody conflict, this campaign is now regarded as one of the finest military endeavours of antiquity. We can say, in retrospect, that these events ultimately shaped the later Roman Empire and therefore the European civilisation as we know it.

For more than 2,000 years historians, statesmen and academics have argued about the route he took. Even Napoleon is known to have shown an interest. But until now, there’s not been any solid archaeological evidence.

Our international team, led by Bill Mahaney of York University in Toronto, have finally provided solid evidence for the most likely transit route: a pass called the Col de Traversette. This narrow pass between a row of peaks is located on the border slightly south-east of Grenoble in France and south-west of Turin in Italy. Our findings are published in Archaeometry.

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