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3,000-Year-Old Remains Show The Oldest Known Shark Attack Victim Met A Grisly End

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Rachael Funnell

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clockJun 25 2021, 14:41 UTC
3,000-Year-Old Remains Show The Oldest Known Shark Attack Victim Met A Grisly End

Nothing ruins a spot of J?mon period fishing quite like getting both your legs snipped off by a shark. Image credit: Kyoto University

The remains of a human who met a grisly fate at the jaws of a shark have been discovered at the Tsukumo site near Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, where shark attacks still occasionally happen to this day. The adult male’s skeleton was radiocarbon dated back to 1370–1010 cal BCE, placing him within the Jōmon period, meaning he was a fisher-hunter-gatherer searching for food in the Japanese archipelago. Archaeological and forensic investigations indicate that he was probably killed by a great white or tiger shark, and the chances are he was alive when it happened…

Published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a paper detailing the findings surrounding the remains believes this person to be the oldest known example of predation on a human by a shark. The unlucky demise wasn’t immediately obvious as the specimen, known as No24, was riddled with evidence of traumatic injuries.

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“We were initially flummoxed by what could have caused at least 790 deep, serrated injuries to this man,” said Oxford researchers J. Alyssa White and Professor Rick Schulting in a statement. “There were so many injuries and yet he was buried in the community burial ground, the Tsukumo Shell-mound cemetery site.

“The injuries were mainly confined to the arms, legs, and front of the chest and abdomen. Through a process of elimination, we ruled out human conflict and more commonly-reported animal predators or scavengers.”

Unsure as to how to proceed, they turned to the expertise of George Burgess, Director Emeritus of the Florida Program for Shark Research, whose knowledge of forensic shark attack cases equipped him with the knowledge to reconstruct No24’s final moments.

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With at least 790 traumatic lesions on his remains, No24’s sorry state was reported to be characteristic of a shark attack. Among the injuries were gouges, punctures, and cuts in the bone as well as blunt force fractures. The researchers mapped the injuries onto a 3D model of a human and the resulting visualization indicated that the victim was probably alive during the attack rather than having been scavenged by the shark when already dead. The left hand would’ve been almost amputated by the attack which could well have been a wound inflicted as the man tried to defend himself.

Following the attack, the remains were retrieved and buried at the Tsukumo cemetery, though not all of No24’s limbs made it in and few were in the right place. The right leg was missing completely from the grave, while the left leg had been placed on top of his body. The researchers say that the ferocity of the attack combined with the geographical location makes either a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) or a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) the most likely suspects.

“The Neolithic people of Jōmon Japan exploited a range of marine resources... It's not clear if Tsukumo 24 was deliberately targeting sharks or if the shark was attracted by blood or bait from other fish,” said co-author Dr Mark Hudson, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute, in a statement. “Either way, this find not only provides a new perspective on ancient Japan, but is also a rare example of archaeologists being able to reconstruct a dramatic episode in the life of a prehistoric community.”


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