Oldest shark attack victim discovered in Japan

'Based on the character and distribution of the tooth marks, the most likely species responsible was either a tiger shark or white shark.'

A University of Oxford-led international team of researchers have reported the discovery of what could be the earliest-known shark attack victim – a 3,000-year-old individual recovered from the Japanese island of Honshu.

While conducting research at Kyoto University into the skeletal evidence for violent trauma within hunter-gatherer populations, Oxford researchers J. Alyssa White and Professor Rick Schulting came across Number 24, an adult male exhibiting extensive traumatic lesions.

The remains were 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.

Number 24 in situ at the Tsukumo cemetery. His right leg is missing, and the left had been positioned over the body. Courtesy of the Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, Kyoto University.

According to the study, published in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, Number 24 bore at least 790 peri-mortem wounds which showed no signs of healing, including deep bone gouges, punctures, cuts, and blunt force fractures.

Taphonomic evidence suggests Number 24 was buried soon after the attack, indicating that a level of care was taken by the community.

Initially, the researchers considered that interpersonal conflict may have caused the injuries, as their morphology matched the blows made by metal weapons. However, radiocarbon dating revealed the victim lived between 1370-1010 BC during the Jomon period in Japan, a time before metal weapons existed on the island.

‘Through a process of elimination, we ruled out human conflict and more commonly-reported animal predators or scavengers,’ said White and Schulting in a statement.

‘Given the injuries, he was clearly the victim of a shark attack. 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 shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) or white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).’

Assisted by the expertise of George Burgess, director emeritus of the Florida Program of Shark Research, the team used X-ray computed tomography (CT) scans and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to map the lesions onto a 3D model of a human skeleton.

The results showed that the injuries were largely concentrated on the victim’s chest, ribs, abdomen, and legs. The left hand had also been severed; this defensive wound suggests the individual was alive at the time of the attack rather than scavenged.

Shark attack victims are rare in the archaeological record, with the oldest previously known case dating to c. AD 1000. Many victims will have never been recovered, and if they have their injuries might be misinterpreted. This important study demonstrates the value of diverse forensic approaches to analysing osteoarchaeological remains.