Ancient shark attack

Individual 24 was found to have at least 790 wounds made at around the time of death

A recent study has identified what could be the earliest-known human shark attack victim – a 3,000-year-old individual from the Japanese island of Honshu.

Individual 24 was discovered during excavations of the prehistoric burial site of Tsukumo in Japan. IMAGE: courtesy of the Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, Kyoto University.

Tsukomo 24 was an adult male recovered from the prehistoric cemetery site of Tsukumo near Japan’s Seto Island Sea, where more than 170 individuals have been unearthed since excavations began there in 1915. An international team led by researchers from the University of Oxford discovered his extensive injuries while investigating skeletal evidence held at Kyoto University for violent trauma among hunter-gatherer populations.

Individual 24 was found to have at least 790 wounds made at around the time of death, which showed no signs of healing. These included deep bone gouges, punctures, overlapping striations, and blunt-force fractures. The nature of these wounds led researchers to conclude that they could not have been caused by the human stone weapons available at the time, nor by any other common animal predators.

Although archaeological evidence of shark attacks is rare, researchers were able to piece together the circumstances of Individual 24’s death using forensic shark-attack cases. The distribution of wounds suggests that he was alive at the time of the attack, while the character of the toothmarks indicate that they were most likely caused by either a tiger shark or a white shark.

The man is known to have died between 1370 and 1010 BC, at a time when the hunter-gatherer people of Jomon Japan were taking advantage of marine resources. It is thought that Individual 24 may have been fishing at the time of the attack, with the blood and bait associated with this activity possibly drawing sharks to the area. It appears that he was fishing with companions, as his body was pulled from the water soon after the attack and buried in the community cemetery.

Results from the study have been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.