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Ancient Dung Trail May Point Way to Hannibal's Alps Route

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April 5, 2016

A 2,000-year-old trail of ancient excrement could be the key to determining the route of Hannibal’s famous crossing of the Alps.

The Carthaginian general, wanting to catch his enemy the Romans by surprise during the Second Punic War, marched in 218 B.C. from a Carthaginian stronghold in Spain through what is now southern France (but was then Gaul) and through the Alps into Italy from the north. It was a journey of more than 1,000 miles, made by an army of more than 30,000 men, who trudged through deep snow in the dead of winter, carrying with them more than 15,000 horses and mules and a few dozen war elephants.

Hannibal ultimately did not win the Second Punic War; the Romans did. But his stunning military victories and strategy, particularly the successful crossing of the Alps, have captured the imagination of historians and the general public alike for more than 2,000 years.

Such a mass movement of people and animals must have left some trail, historians have long thought, but the Alpine crossing took place a long time ago and subsequent generations of settlements and travelers have long obscured evidence of the exact route that Hannibal and his army took. Historians think that this route might have included Col de la Croix, Col de Traversette, Col du Clapier, Col du Montgenevre, Col du Petit St. Bernard, or Mont Cenis.

Now, however, scientists think that they have the answer, in the form of animal dung. Citing carbon dating on remains of animal remains found near the Col de Traversette, a narrow pass between Grenoble, France, and Turin, Italy, scientists have theorized that Hannibal and his army did indeed pass that way. 

They found the remains in a pond, and the carbon dating revealed high amounts of Clostidia, a microbe known to assist in digestion processes. The high amounts of the microbe, together with the high amounts of the dung, at a place that matched known geographical descriptions of Hannibal’s route, suggested to the scientists that they were on to something. The particular microbe is particularly resilient, able to survive for thousands of years.

More tests are needed, the scientists said, and more tests are in the pipeline.

The research appears in the journal Archaeometry.

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