Dirty Things Dominate

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The Carthaginian general Hannibal is remembered for his march across the Alps with thirty-seven elephants, but scholars have long disputed exactly which route he took over the mountains. ILLUSTRATION COURTESY UNIVERSAL HISTORY ARCHIVE / UIG / GETTY

Nature appreciation in these pages frequently has to do with dirty things that are simply fascinating. Related topics we care about such as conservation, as often as not have to do with dirty things; as in, things that need to be cleaned up. Here is another slightly odd appreciation of dirty things that fits the dirty but fascinating and useful category:

Searching for Signs of Hannibal’s Route in DNA from Horse Manure

BY MARGUERITE HOLLOWAY

More than two thousand years ago, thirty-seven elephants from heat-shimmering latitudes ascended Europe’s highest mountain range, tramped though snow and across ice, and breathed the thin air of high altitudes. Those that survived the perilous journey met with a bitter winter and war, as the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who had urged them through the Alps, battled the emergent Roman Republic.

Hannibal, who had travelled from Spain with some fifty thousand men, fifteen thousand horses and mules, and, famously, the elephants, was attempting to deter an attack on Carthage by Rome. His approach from across a protective mountain barrier utterly surprised his enemies, whom he parried up and down the Italian peninsula for nearly fifteen years. After losing many men, his brother, and some of the territory he had won, he returned home in 203 B.C. to defend Carthage, and was defeated the following year. Carthage was ultimately destroyed by Rome half a century later.

The unlikely image of the elephants, those naked mammoths, picking their way through frigid, jagged peaks and along narrow defiles, clearly contributes to an ongoing fascination with Hannibal. Many narrative gaps keep his story alive as well, leaving room for lively, persistent dispute and imaginings. Historians and others have argued about whether the strategic genius studied Greek military maneuvers, what species of elephant he travelled with, and if the pachyderms crossed the Rhône River on rafts or simply waded across it.

Perhaps the most animated controversy centers on the last leg of the surreptitious invasion: the path across the Alps. Over the years, experts have proposed, and sparred over, six principal routes. “The number of publications on Hannibal over the Alps is mind-boggling,” Eve MacDonald, a historian at the University of Reading and the author of “Hannibal: A Hellinistic Life,” said. “Hannibal inspires a Boys’ Own adventure in the modern imagination.”

Last month, a team of scientists published a two-part study suggesting that Hannibal and his ever-dwindling company of soldiers and animals took a southerly course, traveling by way of the Col de la Traversette, a nearly ten-thousand-foot pass. The authors point to geological evidence—some already published—and to new microbiological evidence: genetic fragments from bacteria common to manure. The bacterial bits were found in a layer of possibly hoof-roiled sediment that might date to around 218 B.C., the year of Hannibal’s traverse…

Read the whole post here.

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