3,000-year-old skeleton is the world’s oldest known shark victim

The killer behind the mangled remains of a prehistoric Japanese fisherman was likely a shark, according to scientists who recounted the man’s death in gruesome detail in a new study.

The man, who met his ghastly fate some 3,000 years ago, is being called the first known shark victim in world history — predating the Greeks in their depictions of shark attacks, noted Haaretz — by the Oxford-led research team in their new report, which appears in the latest volume of Elsevier’s Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

“We were initially flummoxed by what could have caused at least 790 deep, serrated injuries to this man,” researchers said in a university press release.

Dubbed Tsukumo No. 4 in the lab catalog, researchers came upon the ghastly specimen while analyzing a cache of previously excavated skeletal remains at the Kyoto University’s Laboratory of Physical Anthropology.

Radiocarbon dating had placed the man’s death at occurring somewhere between 1370 to 1010 years before the common era (BCE), during Japan’s Jōmon period when hunter-gather societies were predominant.

“There were so many injuries and yet he was buried in the community burial ground, the Tsukumo Shell-mound cemetery site,” they noted, located in the Seto Inland Sea of the Japanese archipelago — an area brimming with sharks due to its unique geographical qualities, according to Haaretz.

Despite this, Kyoto University researchers hadn’t been able to pinpoint the Tsukumo No. 24’s cause of death until Oxford’s team invited a number of other experts to solve the mystery, including the University of Florida’s head of the “International Shark Attack File” to investigate the bones.

A distribution map of Tsukumo No. 24's traumatic injuries
The size, distribution and prevalence of Tsukumo No. 24’s traumatic injuries suggest he was mauled in open ocean by one white shark or multiple tiger sharks, according to researchers.
Permission granted by Elsevier

“Shark attacks were and are extremely rare,” Oxford’s Rick Schulting told Haaretz, especially compared to terrestrial predators such as bears and boars, whose victims may be more readily identified in fossil record, the archaeologist suggested. With a world population of 7.6 billion currently, there were just 96 confirmed shark bites last year, according to the International Shark Attack File. Schulting pointed out that 3,000 years ago, when the human population had reached little over 100 million, there were presumably far fewer shark attacks.

“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,” they explained in the initial press release.

The question of what kind of shark tried to make a meal out of this man remains up in the air (or is it down in the deep?). The size and distribution of bite marks suggest it may have been one white shark or multiple tiger sharks, researchers believe. Based on the prevalence of lower-body injuries, including a missing left hand and right leg, they do know that the victim was likely swimming in the open ocean.

Nevertheless, his body was recovered — perhaps by his fishing mates — and afforded a human burial.

Living | New York Post

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