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This Ancient Skull May Have Belonged to The World’s Oldest Tsunami Victim

A new study says Papua New Guinea’s Aitape skull is from someone who died in a massive ocean wave 6,000 years ago

The Aitape skull (Arthur Durband )
smithsonian.com

In 1929, when Australian geologist Paul Hossfeld discovered what has come to be known as the Aitape Skull in Papua New Guinea, there was no indication of the cause of death. The 6,000-year-old skull fragments were stuck in a creek bank 7 miles inland and 170 feet above sea level. So Hossfeld, if he were around today, might be surprised to learn that researchers now believe the skull belongs to the oldest known tsunami victim, reports Nicholas St. Fleur at The New York Times.

James Goff of the University of New South Wales, who led the new study, began investigating ancient tsumanis in Papua New Guinea after a deadly wave hit the island nation in 1998. St. Fleur reports that that this more recent tsunami provided the geochemical signatures Goff needed to look for when searching for evidence of ancient tsunamis. When he and his colleagues examined the sediment found with the Aitape skull, it had similar chemistry and was full of deep sea diatoms, a type of algae with a silicon skeleton. That was key: Presence of diatoms is a telltale sign that an area was once washed with seawater. 

"We have discovered that the place where the Aitape Skull was unearthed was a coastal lagoon that was inundated by a large tsunami about 6,000 years ago, similar to the one that struck nearby with such devastating effect in 1998, killing more than 2,000 people,” Goff says in a press release. “We conclude that this person who died there so long ago is probably the oldest known tsunami victim in the world.”

Goff says that the Aitape individual either died in the tsunami, or that he died soon before the tsunami. His remains were likely washed away and reburied by the massive wave. According to Reuters, the Aitape skull was not found with any other bones, which is consistent with what occurred after the 1998 tsunami, in which the bodies of many victims were scavenged by crocodiles.

The world has grown particularly aware of the threat of tsunamis in the last decade, since the 2004 Indonesian tsunami killed 230,000 people in 14 countries and the 2011 Japanese tsunami led to the nuclear emergency at Fukushima. Yet the study says researchers should pay more attention to how such disasters have impacted human history. “As probably the oldest-known tsunami victim in the world, the Aitape skull speaks volumes about the long-term exposure of human populations along the world’s coastlines and how such events in the past will have undoubtedly had fundamental effects on human migration, settlement and culture,” Goff tells Reuters.

Mark Golitko, an assistant professor in the anthropology department at the University of Notre Dame, tells Mindy Weisberger at LiveScience that the period of the Aitape skull was particular influential on human migration. As the ice ages ended, the Earth’s climate and many habitats changed, too. Sea levels stabilized and coastal environments developed, attracting human communities to the water’s edge. In New Guinea, what was once steep cliffs became prime beachside real estate, though it had some problems. “It looks like paradise,” Golitko says. “But if we're right about the frequency of tsunamis, and if we add in the periods of drought and periods of incredible rain associated with El Niño and La Niña, then it suddenly begins to look like you're kind of trapped.”

Golitko says understanding the history of past tsunamis and coastal disasters have lessons for the modern age—lessons borne out by the destruction caused by this year's major hurricanes. For instance: Living on the coast can be wonderful for years or decades. Until it isn’t.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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