In 218 BC, Hannibal marched an army consisting of soldiers, mules, horses and elephants from Spain, over the Alps, and into Italy to attack the Romans at the start of the Second Punic War. His precise route through the Alps has been debated for years.
Bill Mahaney, a geologist and professor emeritus at York University in Toronto, led a team that
as found evidence supporting a route proposed by British biologist Sir Gavin de Beer. From their study, it appears that the army marched through the Col de la Traversette on the French-Italian border.
“If confirmed, the findings presented here have far-reaching implications for solving the Hannibalic route question and, more importantly, for the identification of a site that might be expected to yield significant historical archaeological data and artifacts related to the Punic invasion,” the researchers wrote in the first part of a two-part study published in the journalArchaeometry.
Mahaney has been interested in classical history as a hobby for decades. He knew about the debate over Hannibal’s route and thought he might be able to determine it from descriptions of the geology in historical texts. As an example, the Greek historian Polybius mentions a two-tier rockfall in his account of the trek.
While involved with an unrelated study, Mahaney kept an eye out for clues that matched those descriptions. Over time, he accumulated enough clues to venture a hypothesis as to where the army must have passed.
There is a mire an area where rocky mountain terrain gives way to vegetation, with a stream below the Col de la Traversette that would make a good place to water animals and allow them to feed.
Mahaney took a team and drilled about 70cm into the soil and retrieved cores of sediment. The cores had 3,000 years of sediment. Within the cores was a layer that was churned up.
“I said to the other guys, ‘You ever seen anything like this?’ They just looked at me.”
Mahaney said he’d pulled “two or three hundred cores from around the world and I’ve never seen anything like this.’“
“So this is either frost or one hell of a group of people coming through with animals churning the hell out of this peat.”
There was no evidence of frost in nearby sites from that time period.
The churned up layer had a lot of organic material, including “some poop – quite a lot of it,” Mahoney said.