A Lesson from History: When Assembling an Army of War Elephants, Don’t Pick Inbred Ones

Even though African elephants usually trump Asian elephants for might and aggression, in 217 B.C. Ptolemy made the crucial mistake of choosing inbred ones

War elephants depicted in the battle of Zama, 202 BC. Photo: Henri-Paul Motte

Back in 217 B.C., tensions were running high in the Middle East. Alexander the Great had died about a century earlier, and people were still trying to sort out who got to own what in his vast empire. Negotiations usually played out on the battlefield. One such clash took place near modern-day Gaza, at the Battle of Raphia, where Ptolemy IV, the King of Egypt, and Antiochus III the Great, the King of the Seleucid kingdom (which stretched from modern day Turkey to India) butted heads. This particular skirmish involved war elephants. The University of Illinois recounts the scene: 

Ptolemy had 73 African war elephants and Antiochus had 102 Asian war elephants, according to Polybius, a Greek historian who described the battle at least 70 years later.

“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,” said Polybius in The Histories.

“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.”

Despite his fraidy elephants, Ptolemy somehow managed to win the battle. But that's not the bit that's bothered historians and scientists since then. Asian elephants, researchers now know, are smaller and meeker than their tyranical cousins from the African savannah. Why, then, did Ptolemy's elephants make such a sorry show of things on the battlefield? 

For years, experts have susepcted that Ptolemy's elephants were actually African forest elephants, a much smaller species than African savannah elephants. To find out, researchers went back to the source of the problem: Eritrea's elephants. They sequenced those animals genetics to see whether they had somehow been crossed with forest elephants, or were actually just forest elephants in disguise. The analysis, however, revealed that those populations are in fact savannah elephants with no relation to forest elephants. The scientists did discover a notable trait in the Eritrean elephants, though: they have gone through a genetic bottleneck due to isolation. In other words, Ptolemy likely recruited inbred elephants. 

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