Ancient tooth debunks a 2,500-year-old claim about Greek soldiers


Geochemical evidence of an Ancient tooth reveals that armies in the Battles of Himera were a mixture of locals and outsiders.

The study published earlier this year in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Katherine Reinberger of the University of Georgia, US, and colleagues, contradicts certain claims made in historical accounts by ancient Greek writers.

In 480 BCE, the ancient Greek city of Himera successfully fought off a Carthaginian army.

In 409 BCE, Carthage attacked again, and Himera fell. Historians of the time, including Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus, write that Himera stood strong in the first battle thanks to the aid of Greek allies, while it went unaided in the second battle.

However, given the limited and partisan perspective of those ancient historians, these accounts are liable to be incomplete and biased.

The authors of the present study tested these historical claims against geochemical evidence. They sampled strontium and oxygen isotopes from tooth enamel of 62 soldiers who fought in the battles. The soldiers' tooth chemistry varied based on their region of origin.

The researchers found that only about one-third of Himera's soldiers from the first battle were local to the area, while around three-fourths were locals in the second battle, corroborating the written claims that Himera was more aided by outsiders the first time than in the second battle. However, the evidence also shows that, contrary to written accounts, many outsiders were not Greek allies, but were instead mercenaries hired from beyond Greek territories.

“It’s not very common to find mass graves from ancient Greek battles, so this was a unique opportunity to use isotopic research as direct evidence for soldiers’ lived experiences such as where they came from,” Reinberger told Inverse.

“Additionally, a lot of what we know about the ancient Greek military is based on armies and battles from mainland Greece ... So not only do these battles and the mass graves from them provide direct information about Greek military forces generally, they also expand what we know about the Greek military practices on Sicily.”

This study demonstrates the power of archaeological remains to test the claims of historical texts and reveals a potential bias in ancient writings.

Analyzing the different isotopes found in these soldiers' teeth will help researchers not only better understand the historical accounts of these battles but could also help them understand the sociopolitical structure between Greek nationals and foreign allies or mercenaries.

“This study suggests that ancient communities were more diverse than previously thought,” said Reinberger. “The recruitment of foreign mercenaries may have provided pathways to citizenship that are not often discussed in Greek history.”

In the future, Reinberger says she’s interested in seeing how isotopic analysis could help explore other historic battles as well as what else these ancient teeth can teach us about Greek history.

“It would be amazing to have this type of information from other battles from the ancient historical record,” said Reinberger. “It would be interesting to see if there are similar levels of geographic diversity in other Greek armies or if it is unique to Greek colonies who may have already been in contact with more groups than the mainland.”

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GCT Team

This article was researched and written by a GCT team member.