Experimental Archaeology: Walking an Elephant on the Alps
There are various “scientific” methods to assess the accuracy of the story. One of these ways is to look for statistical correlations in the data, but this can lead a person astray – like the Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko, who concluded that a Russia-Horde built the Great Pyramids. Surely there must be a better way to analyze history as scientifically as possible.
Experimental archeology is a niche activity in which modern researchers, often amateurs, attempt to recreate events, structures, tasks or journeys from the past. They accomplish these feats with the tools, methods and knowledge available at the time.
The Kon-Tiki expedition is a famous example. Six men built a rudderless balsa wood raft and floated more than 4,000 miles across the South Pacific in 1947. The purpose of this trip was to experimentally test whether primitive peoples could have traveled from South America. South and reach Polynesia. The modern expedition departed from Peru and landed 101 days later on a Polynesian atoll. Anthropologists still debate whether actual human migration happened this way. However, the Kon-Tiki trip suggested it was possible.
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Another classic example of experimental archeology is the Hannibal British Alpine Expedition. Hannibal was a general of Carthage (located in modern Tunisia), an ancient Mediterranean civilization that rivaled Rome for several centuries before the birth of Christ. Hannibal’s reputation as one of history’s greatest generals was built on his command of an army that spent 15 years dominating large parts of the Italian peninsula, overwhelming the Roman armies sent for the Stop.
Hannibal recruited or coerced men from various localities and paid mercenaries, but a central part of his army was a corps of terrifying war elephants. These creatures, or their ancestors, originated from the North African farms of Carthage. Hannibal first formed his army and corps of elephants in southern Spain, and marched on land through southern France. The Romans hoped to stop it by placing troops along the healthy coastal route to Italy. Hannibal deceived them instead embarking on a crazy journey through the Alps.
How did Hannibal lead his elephants through the high mountains? The towering creatures had to take a narrow route through the 7,000 foot high passes. Such a feat could be considered a myth if there was no well-documented sequel. trampling of the Romans by war elephants. Roman historians had various theories. Carthaginian histories were largely lost or destroyed when Rome later wiped out their civilization. Twentieth-century scholars have debated the issue in books and newspaper articles.
Inspired by these debates and his own love of mountaineering, a young engineering student John Hoyte personally proposed and explored a particular route. After graduating, Hoyte wrote to British consuls in Europe seeking an elephant to cross the Alps to test his route. To his surprise, the long-winded request found a zookeeper with a newly acquired healthy young circus elephant named Jumbo, who was trained to work with humans. Turin Zoo, as well as Life magazine, agreed to sponsor the trip. The team got elephant insurance. Despite all the support, it still wasn’t easy.
The original route through a mountain pass called Col de Clapier was threatened by falling rocks, so the expedition was forced to retreat and try another pass, the Col du Mont-Cenis at proximity. The human members of the expedition constructed a set of high leather boots to protect the elephant’s feet and draped a makeshift jumper over its back. Jumbo ate about 250 pounds of food a day. Still, she lost nearly 500 pounds during the 10-day walk.
A series of photographs capture the atmosphere of the expedition. Jumbo plows mountain meadows and carefully crosses bridges and narrow paths. Crowds gather in the streets of Alpine towns to serenade the passing beast and its feast. Jumbo snatches the Italy-France border crossing barrier from its trunk and lifts it. The party camps and sups in the evening with the beast. At high altitude, makeshift clothing protects her from the cold. The Italian city of Susa holds a victory celebration in the streets as Jumbo arrives, successfully completing its journey.
Journey of the War Elephants
And the real war elephants? Historians believe that many animals died during the crossing. The war elephant corps may have been resupplied during the only time in the 15-year campaign when the army received reinforcements from Carthage.
While Hannibal was never decisively defeated in Europe, a Roman general of similar greatness eventually found a way to get rid of him. Scipio, later given the epithet Africanus, attacked the Carthaginian homeland. This forced Hannibal’s recall to Africa to defend him. Hannibal’s long and interesting story continued, with more war elephants, on this continent. Scipio perfected the tactic to blunt the attacks of the Elephant Corps and eventually defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama.
The Alpine Hannibal expedition had a happier ending: the elephant had champagne and cake in Italy. The expedition succeeded in demonstrating that the route through the Col du Mont-Cenis could were crossed by a former platoon of war elephants, but this does not prove it. So, is re-creation in experimental archeology an effective method of testing history? It looks like we need more trials to test the hypothesis.