An ancient partial skull that was once thought to belong to an extinct human species may actually belong to the oldest known tsunami victim.
This skull belongs to what could be the oldest tsunami victim that we know of. [Photo be Reuters]
In 1929, the skull was discovered in a town called Aitape in Papua New Guinea. Scientists had previously thought that the skull belonged to an individual that belonged to the Homo erectus species, which died out about 140,000 years ago. However, scientists are now singing a different song. More recent scientific dating has revealed that the remains are actually only 6,000 years old.
According to a new study, the sediments in the area where the skull was found bore signs of a tsunami. It had a composition that was remarkably similar to the aftermath of a 1998 tsunami that struck the same area. The researchers discovered that Aitape, which is located about 12 kilometers away from the coast, had once been a coastal lagoon that had been inundated by a tsunami.
Satellite view of Aitape
Dr. Mark Golitko of the University of Notre Dame says that 7,000 years ago at most, the area where Aitape is located was probably much closer to the coast, since sea levels were higher back then. In 2014, Golitko and his team traveled to Aitape and collected geological deposits for further lab testing. According to the researchers, the skull itself had already been studied extensively, but the sediments in which it was found had not.
"The geological similarities between these sediments and the sediments laid down during the 1998 tsunami made us realise that human populations in this area have been affected by these massive inundations for thousands of years," says tsunami expert James Goff.
The researchers found telling evidence that a tsunami had hit the area around the same time that the individual the skull belonged to died. They found microscopic organisms that belonged to the ocean in the sediment, just like the organisms they found when they studied the geological effects of the 1998 tsunami.
“Much like the 1998 tsunami, we suspect that one or more large waves very suddenly impacted the coast, washing near-shore villages and anyone living there further back into swamps and lagoons that dot the coast,” Golitko said.
Researchers speak to locals about their geological research in Aitape. [Photo by Ethan Cochrane]
Were there any other bones that belonged to the victim? Interestingly, no. The victim, in fact, may have met a gruesome fate. The researchers note that victims of the 1998 tsunami were washed into lagoons, where scavenging crocodiles awaited. In fact, retrieval operations for the bodies had to be halted because of the presence of the crocodiles. Thus, it’s unlikely that we’ll find the rest of the remains of the oldest known tsunami victim.
However, it’s also possible that the individual in question had already died and been buried before the tsunami struck.
These findings are a reminder of the jarring reality of calamitous natural disasters. According to Goff, the region had been battered repeatedly by tsunamis throughout history. These tsunamis have caused death and destruction, even war and the disappearance of trade routes.
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