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Archaeologists Uncover a 3,000-Year-Old Shark Attack Victim

Researchers found the skeletal remains at a prehistoric hunter-gatherer cemetery in Japan

Though researchers recovered most of the person's remains, experts were unable to find some portions of his skeleton. (Courtesy of Kyoto University)
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Marine biologists have long tried to dispel the myth that sharks are vicious predators that target humans. Nonetheless, fatal shark assaults do occasionally happen. According to University of Florida's Museum of Natural History, 57 unprovoked shark bites occurred worldwide in 2020, with 13 of those being fatal. Now experts have unearthed the skeletal remains of the oldest known shark attack victim, reports Sophie Wingate for the Independent.

University of Oxford researchers J. Alyssa White and Rick Schulting recently uncovered an adult male skeleton known as Tsukumo No. 24 at the Tsukumo burial site, a prehistoric hunter-gatherer cemetery in Japan's Okayama Prefecture, while researching violent trauma on human remains of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, according to a statement. The victim displayed nearly 790 traumatic injuries including incisions, punctures and fractures that showed no signs of healing, which suggest that the incident was fatal. The researchers published their findings in the August 2021 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Per the statement, the team used a combination of scientific and forensic methods to determine what wounded the man. While analyzing the skeleton, archaeologists concluded that the man probably died between 1370 B.C. and 1010 B.C. and that his injuries were primarily concentrated on his arms, legs, chest and stomach.

Experts used this information and other evidence to determine that a tiger shark or a great white shark most likely ambushed the victim. The injuries resembled those made with metal weapons, but scientists used radiocarbon dating to determine that the attack occurred at a time in Japan when people didn’t have those, notes Haaretz’s Ruth Schuster. The team considered other possible assailants—like crabs, bears and boars—but the types of lesions on the remains didn't fit the bill, so researchers ruled those out.

“Given the injuries, he was clearly the victim of a shark attack,” say White and Schulting in the statement. “The man may well have been fishing with companions at the time, since he was recovered quickly. And, based on the character and distribution of the tooth marks, the most likely species responsible was either a tiger or white shark.”

As Mindy Weisberger writes for Live Science, tiger sharks and great white sharks inhabit Japan's Seto Inland Sea near the burial site. Both species have previously mauled humans, though they don’t usually attack people unless they’re provoked.

“Many victims of shark attacks in the past may not have been recovered for burial,” Schulting tells Haaretz. “But there are two other factors at play. One is that evidence of the injuries to bone caused by sharks may not always be recognized.”

Since archaeological discoveries of shark attacks are relatively uncommon, the team decided to consult George Burgess, director emeritus of the Florida Program for Shark Research. Together, the international team was able to reconstruct the assault using X-ray computed tomography (CT), which allowed experts to see and map the person’s wounds, per Live Science.

These scans showed that most of the victim's ribs were fractured and bitten and that his chest cavity and abdomen were probably eviscerated. The wounds were also concentrated on his left hip and leg, and he may have lost his left hand while trying to protect his body from the attack.

Scholars also speculate that the victim lived during the Jomon period in Japan, about 2,300 to 14,000 years ago, according to Haaretz. People of the Jomon culture likely hunted and fished to survive, and Tsukumo No. 24 may have perished during such a fishing expedition. Prior to this find, the oldest known shark attack victim was almost 1,000 years younger, per Live Science.

Construction workers initially uncovered the Tsukumo site in 1860, and the first archaeological digs occurred in 1915. Since then, archaeologists have found more than 170 human remains there. However, only one skeleton had such gruesome and widespread injuries.

“Humans have a long, shared history with sharks,” the scientists write in the study. “This is one of the relatively rare instances when humans were on their menu, and not the reverse.”

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