Mystery of the War Elephants Solved
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2014
Scholars have been arguing almost forever over the “War of the Elephants,” which took place in 217 B.C. between Ptolemy IV, King of Egypt, and Antiochus III the Great, whose kingdom reached from modern-day Turkey to Pakistan.
The battle (also known as the Battle of Raphia) took place in what is now Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on the border between present-day Egypt and Israel. It was the only known battle in which Asian and African elephants faced off against each other. The great mystery, until now, was why historical accounts described the African elephants as smaller and less powerful than their Asian counterparts.
That never made much sense because we know that the largest African savannah elephants are bigger on average by about a half meter and 1000 kilograms. The historical account said Ptolemy, leading the army with the African elephants, had commandeered his elephants from what is now Eritrea, on the Red Sea, home to the northernmost population of savannah elephants. Some scholars (and the unknown artist for the illustration above) argued that he had obtained African forest elephants rather than savannah elephants. Forest elephants are a closer match in size with Asian elephants, and research has recently demonstrated that they are a separate species from savannah elephants.
So did Eritrea have forest or savannah elephants?
Now a study in The Journal of Heredity proposes a DNA-based answer. Alfred Roca from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and his co-authors analyzed the DNA of the last surviving Eritrean elephants, a population of about 100 animals on the country’s southwestern border with Ethiopia.
In the battle, Antiochus had 102 Asian war elephants, and Ptolemy had 73 African war elephants. Describing what happened 70 years later, the Greek historian Polybius wrote:
A few of Ptolemy’s elephants ventured too close with those of the enemy, and now the men in the towers on the back of these beasts made a gallant fight of it, striking with their pikes at close quarters and wounding each other, while the elephants themselves fought still better, putting forth their whole strength and meeting forehead to forehead.
Ptolemy’s elephants, however, declined the combat, as is the habit of African elephants; for unable to stand the smell and the trumpeting of the [Asian] elephants, and terrified, I suppose, also by their great size and strength, they at once turn tail and take to flight before they get near them.
Over the years, there has been a lot of speculation about Polybius’s account. “Until well into the 19th century the ancient accounts were taken as fact by all modern natural historians and scientists,” says Neal Benjamin, an Illinois veterinary student who studies elephant taxonomy and ancient literature with Roca, “and that is why Asian elephants were given the name Elephas maximus. After the scramble for Africa by European nations, more specimens became available and it became clearer that African elephants were mostly larger than Asian elephants. At this point, speculation began about why the African elephants in the Polybius account might have been smaller. One scientist, Paules Deraniyagala, even suggested that they might even have been an extinct smaller subspecies.”
In fact, analysis of mitochondrial DNA from present-day Eritrean elephants reveals that they are actually savanna elephants. But what does that say about the elephants that lived there 2300 years ago, at the time of the battle?