First Human Skeleton From Bronze Age Tsunami Discovered in Turkey

Archaeologists find remains of a young man and dog left behind by a natural disaster some 3,600 years ago in the Mediterranean

overview of skeleton half unearthed at dig site
Researchers found the skeleton of a human (pictured) and dog left behind by a tsunami that destroyed coastal communities along the Mediterranean Sea some 3,600 years ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

A massive volcanic eruption in the Mediterranean Sea some 3,600 years ago might just be the worst natural disaster in human history. The event contributed to the decline of Minoan culture on Thera—now the Greek island of Santorini—and also created a huge tsunami that demolished communities all along the sea’s coastline.

For the first time, archaeologists in Turkey have found an articulated human skeleton in the debris field left behind by the tsunami, reports Maya Margit for the Media Line. The researchers made the discovery and published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists Beverly Goodman-Tchernov and Vasıf Şahoğlu were puzzled by an ash layer of sediment analyzed from a dig at Çeşme-Bağlararası in Turkey. The layer had similarities to ash deposits connected with the Thera eruption, according to the Jerusalem Post.

"We proceeded to study the deposit, which for many years frustrated and confused us until it became clear that our error was thinking that only a small part of the deposit was tsunami-related, and in fact, the tsunami deposit was much larger than we could have imagined," Goodman-Tcherov tells the Jerusalem Post. "Once we understood this, the entire excavation area fit together logically, and the discovery of the human skeleton was like receiving confirmation from the ancients."

The researchers­ say the findings give them more insight into the magnitude of the disaster as well as help map the chronological history of the Bronze Age, which lasted from 3000 B.C.E. to 1000 B.C.E. The location of the deposits reveal that a much larger area was affected by the disaster than previously believed.

Male archaeologist working excavation site in a stone quarry
Archaeologist Beverly Goodman-Tchernov at work at the excavation site in Turkey. Vasıf Şahoğlu, Ankara University

Previously, the Thera eruption was thought to have occurred about 1500 B.C.E. However, according to Kristin Romey of National Geographic, the team dated the disaster to a full century earlier. Radiocarbon tests of nine samples taken from the debris field place the date at no later than 1612 B.C.E., though some scientists question the methodology.

Vasıf Şahoğlu, a professor at Ankara University’s Department of Archaeology and head of the Mustafa V. Koç Research Center for Maritime Archaeology, invited Goodman-Tchernov to participate in the dig, reports Israel National News. They worked alongside other researchers from Turkey, Israel and Austria.

In addition to the complete human skeleton, the team also found the remains of a dog. The archaeologists determined that several tsunamis generated by the Thera eruption struck the Çeşme area, located on the western coast of Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea.

“The tsunami deposits at Çeşme-Bağlararası contain the first victims (human and dog) ever identified related to the eruption and its immediate consequences,” says the team in the study. “The work also introduces nine radiocarbon ages directly from the event deposit that will be of great interest and cause significant discussion amongst scholars, particularly given their context within a well-constrained, undisturbed, stratigraphic archaeological sequence.”

The skeleton of the young man was discovered pushed up against a retaining wall of a village, similar to bodies found after tsunamis in modern times, reports Bob Yirka for Phys.org. The researchers also located damaged walls, rubble, sediment and ash relating to the disaster.

The Minoan civilization spread across the Mediterranean in the Middle Bronze Age, about 2000 to 1500 B.C.E. The pre-Greek culture produced large palaces, lively frescoes, fine jewelry and highly decorated pottery on Crete and other islands such as Thera.

The volcanic eruption on Thera and the resulting tsunamis occurred around the same time as the decline of Minoan society, leading some historians and archaeologists to list the disaster as a major contributing factor. Other experts speculate that conflicts with other emerging cultures in the region also caused the demise.

First Human Skeleton From Bronze Age Tsunami Discovered in Turkey
The Thera eruption left traces of its destruction, forming several calderas on and around the island of Santorini. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The eruption completely changed Thera, now Santorini, forming a circle of several new islands as well as clusters of sunken calderas, or large depressions left by collapsed magma chambers, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The disaster sunk much of the main island, destroying many of its communities, but left remnants of structures, pottery and house furnishings that archaeologists have been studying for decades.

Until now, no human remains have been discovered from the Thera disaster, which resulted in widespread death and destruction across the Mediterranean. Archaeologists believe bodies were buried in mass graves to avoid the spread of disease, reports the Jerusalem Post.

According to Şahoğlu, the skeleton found in Turkey was deep in the debris field. He said that evidence of digging existed above the remains as if rescuers were trying to locate the body but gave up a few feet before finding it, states the Jerusalem Post.

“From now on the theories concerning the end of the Minoan civilization and what happened to people will slowly start finding a solid ground and the impact of this natural disaster on human life will be the focus of future work on this subject,” Şahoğlu tells Media Line. “No one before expected the impact of the eruption to be so strong in order to really destroy settlements so far north in the Aegean.”