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How Big Were Ptolemy’s African War Elephants?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

(Steve Garvie, via Wikimedia Commons)CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS—Adam Brant and Alfred Roca of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and their colleagues conducted a genetic study of elephants, using their dung, to try to clarify an account of the Battle of Raphia in 217 B.C. written by the Greek historian Polybius. The Egyptian pharaoh Ptolemy won the battle, but according to Polybius, his African war elephants were small and timid compared to the Asian elephants in the army of Antiochus III. African elephants are divided into smaller forest and larger savanna-dwelling species. Did Ptolemy perhaps fight with the smaller forest variety of elephant? Knowing that the range of African elephants did not extend into Egypt, Brandt thinks that Ptolemy probably traveled to Eritrea to find his war elephants. The team’s analysis concluded that today’s small, surviving population of elephants in Eritrea is related to the larger savanna variety, without genetic ties to forest elephants or Asian elephants. “Most likely, the Greek historian who wrote about the battle added in his own interpretation as to the relative size of the elephants. There were semi-mythological accounts in the ancient world that attributed great size to the elephants of India, and these were probably known to Polybius, and were likely the source of his belief that Indian elephants were the largest of all,” wrote Roca.