Presenter: Associate Professor Michael Charles (Southern Cross University)

Recent genetic research using mitochondrial DNA has attempted to show that the elephants used by the Ptolemies were not the smaller African forest elephant, as is suggested by Polybius’ account of the battle of Raphia (217 BC), where he says that the Ptolemaic elephants were afraid of the larger Indian ones of the Seleucids. In contrast, the geneticists contend that the animals of the Ptolemies were in fact the larger bush or savannah elephant, since a small population of modern elephants in Eritrea, roughly the area whence the Ptolemaic beasts came, show no forest elephant admixture. I have recently dealt with this issue in an article published in Historia, where I argued that Polybius did not necessarily ‘get it wrong’. But the question remains: were the ancients aware of the bush elephant? In this presentation, I provide an overview of my previous research, and introduce material from Arab historians and Islamic scholars dealing with the Aksumite invasion of Yemen in the first half of the sixth century AD. From my initial reading of these texts, it would appear that these writers, reflecting on Surah 105 (al-Fīl, or ‘The Elephant’) in the Quran, could represent our last hope of finding the bush elephant in antiquity – although significant questions remain.