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.

About Classics and Ancient History Seminars

Event details

  • The seminars take place at 4pm, in the Michie Building (09), Room 536
  • Seminars are also on Zoom. Send an email to Duncan Keenan-Jones ( for the link.
  • Upcoming seminars can be found here.
  • Please be aware that we are still operating under Covid-19 regulations during public events. Masks are no longer required at UQ locations - however, UQ strongly encourages mask wearing when physical distancing is not possible. UQ strongly encourages all campus attendees to be up to date with vaccinations. And finally, those who are feeling unwell, have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in the previous 7 days or have been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 7 days, are asked not to attend this seminar.
  • For those attending in person, if you would like to join us for drinks and/or dinner afterwards at UQ’s St. Lucy's from 5:15 pm, please RSVP by email to Duncan Keenan-Jones ( by 9am on the day of the seminar.
  • Please also contact Duncan Keenan-Jones should you have questions about the event.

The Friends of Antiquity, an alumni organisation of the University, runs its own series of public lectures, which take place on Sunday afternoons. The Friends’ program for can be found at