The Jaws of Ancient Japan: The World’s Oldest Shark Attack Victim | History Hit

The Jaws of Ancient Japan: The World’s Oldest Shark Attack Victim

Excavation photo: Original excavation photograph of Tsukumo No. 24,
Image Credit: Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, Kyoto University, Japan.

Sharks and humans have co-existed uneasily in the ocean for millennia: shark attacks still remain incredibly dangerous and highly feared, and humans have increasingly begun to hunt sharks for sport. But despite their reputation, shark attacks are rare, and hard archaeological evidence of them in the past is often hard to come by.

In the final hours of a research trip to Kyoto University, Japan in 2016, archaeologist Alyssa White found what she had been looking for: 3000 year old human bones with marks on them consistent with violence during the end of the Jomon period. Violence in the pre-historic world came in all shapes and sizes – combat with another person, an animal attack, or even viciously inflicted post-mortem, but none of these seemed to obviously fit with the marks on the bones.

It’s a crossover with Jaws and Open Water that we never expected, but a 3,000 year old corpse has thrown a surprising topic into the mix: shark bites. The body, found in the prehistoric Tsukumo hunter-gatherer burial site in Japan, unexpectedly presented evidence of traumatic injuries compatible with a shark bite, making it the earliest known victim of a shark attack. Following this discovery, Tristan spoke to Alyssa White from the University of Oxford. Alyssa was part of the team who studied body No. 24. She explains how they came across No. 24, the evidence which led them towards the cause of death, and the archaeological science and forensic techniques used to recreate the misfortune of this early shark victim.
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Returning the following year, the mystery deepened. The 800 marks on body no. 24 were sharp, numerous and consistent: a repeated and vicious attack, but not one inflicted by another person, or an animal that they could think of. Eventually, after assorted bone comparisons, they realised the marks – patterns of lesions, gouges and bone shavings – were those left by a shark following a prolonged attack. Conversations with shark experts confirmed the likelihood of this theory.

Body no. 24 was buried in the Tsukumo shell burial site, a few kilometres inland from the coast. The working hypothesis is that no. 24 was out fishing in deep water when he was attacked, possibly by a tiger shark. The body was also missing a right leg and left hand: the left leg was detached and buried alongside the body, suggesting the attack was vicious and he lost multiple limbs during his attempts to escape or defend himself. Photos from the original excavation of the site in 1920 helped confirm this.

Despite his terrifying final moments, no. 24’s body was returned to land, probably by canoe or possibly washed ashore, and buried according to tradition and custom of the time. As such, it appears he was part of a community who cared for each other and who was cared for.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this discovery is the fact that there was actually an archaeological example of a shark attack victim. Given their scarcity (around 80 per year in recent years), the chances of recovering a body, preserving the body in a way which would mean it survived, and lastly the discovery and excavation of said body 3000 years later, the discovery of no. 24’s body is a moment that most archaeologists only ever dream of. No. 24’s body provides a glimpse into the past – the brutality and the humanity of the time in which he lived.

Sarah Roller