Archaeologists Resolve Enigma of Man Savaged 3,000 Years Ago in Japan

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Original excavation photograph of "Tsukumo 24" - a man who had been attacked by a shark around 3,000 years ago
Original excavation photograph of "Tsukumo 24" - a man who had been attacked by a shark around 3,000 years agoCredit: Laboratory of Physical Anthropol

Sharks have been around for nearly half-a-billion years and humans have had a predilection for the seaside since our species began, making an interface an inevitability. Yet shark attacks on humans are actually very rare and finding clear evidence of one in the archaeological record is even rarer – not least because if a shark is big enough to target a human, it will likely finish the job.

At least one shark was left frustrated, it seems. The century-old mystery of a horribly mangled man with deep striations on his bones, buried 3,000 years ago by late-prehistoric hunter-gatherers living on the Japanese coast, has now been solved.

The man was attacked by a shark while still alive; the attack had to have been fatal, judging by the 790-plus injuries he sustained. Yet somehow enough remained of him to be buried in a communal graveyard, now an archaeological site near Japan’s Seto Inland Sea, concluded Rick Schulting and J. Alyssa White of Oxford, with George Burgess of the University of Florida, Masato Nakatsukasa of Kyoto University and colleagues.

This is by far the earliest evidence we have of a shark attack on a human; it is even earlier than the known records of such events in ancient Greece. The previous record (not evidence, mind you) was from 1,000 C.E., the team says.

If it’s any comfort, this ancient fisherman off the coast of Japan probably died quickly, the researchers suggest.

Prehistoric fatality in a ‘marginal sea’

Seto is not an inland sea; nor is it like Israel’s “Sea of Galilee” – which is actually a freshwater lake. Seto is a shallow body of ocean water lying between the Japanese islands of Honshū, Shikoku and Kyūshū. Purists would call it a “marginal sea” that connects the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan – but the point is, it is thronged by sharks. And somewhere between 3,370 to 3,010 years ago, a hunter-gatherer-fishingperson in the Seto sea got savaged.

The team counted “at least” 790 bite marks on the poor man, which they identified as perimortem, meaning at or near the time of death.

The Seto Inland SeaCredit: GuppyDesign / Shutterstock.com
Seto Inland SeaCredit: Google Maps

The man belonged to a Jōmon period hunting-gathering society living in the archipelago. His mangled remains were analyzed by Oxford researchers Schulting and his student White, two of the paper’s co-authors.

At first, the two explain, they too were at a loss to explain the sheer extent of the man’s injuries, showing evidence that the edge that did the cutting was serrated, and the fact that the victim was buried on land, in the community burial ground, known as the Tsukumo Shell-Mound Cemetery (originally discovered in the 1920s).

If a person living by a sea thronged with great whites and other man-eating sharks dies with 790 bite wounds severe enough to leave lesions on the bones, how much of a riddle is this – even if it is the nature of shark attacks not to leave remains?

“You’re right that many victims of shark attacks in the past may not have been recovered for burial. But there are two other factors at play. One is that evidence of the injuries to bone caused by sharks may not always be recognized,” Schulting explains to Haaretz – and this particular man was a case in point.

The site had been known for a century and several researchers looked at the marks on the skeleton but didn’t realize what they were. “‘Crab scavenging’ was one suggestion,” Schulting adds — but the team discounted the crabs as the culprits.

Further impeding identification of the perp was the fact that Japan does have large predators, but not many of them, and the archaeologists and physical anthropologists working there aren’t familiar with the kinds of damage predators can cause to the skeleton, the researcher says.

As for recognizing the kind of damage sharks can do to the skeleton, one should note that “shark attacks were and are extremely rare. There are on average about fatalities 10 recorded a year in recent times, with a human population much larger than that of 3,000 years ago. So the Tsukumo individual is very unusual (and one might add he was very unlucky),” Schulting observes.

So, the terrestrial predators and scavengers of Japan such as bears and boars and crabs were not capable of inflicting injuries like this. But Schulting and White were no more familiar than local scientists were with shark-related injuries – again, because they are so rare.

“We certainly did not immediately think of a shark when we saw the injuries,” he tells Haaretz. “We had been looking at Jomon skeletons in Kyoto University as part of a study of interpersonal violence in prehistory, and our first thoughts were more along those lines. The marks on the bones had very sharp and straight edges, which are usually only seen with metal weapons.”

But human conflict as the cause was ruled out, less on the grounds of the sheer savagery and more on the grounds that people in Japan at the time didn’t have metal weapons. “The people of the Jomon culture didn’t use metal,” Schulting explains.

Tiger sharks, don't try this at homeCredit: YouTube

So far were the team’s minds from predatory fish that their next thought, he continues, was that the burial dated from a later era when people did have metal weapons and could achieve that result. But radio-carbon dating the bones shot that theory out of the water.

And the more injuries researcher White recorded, the stranger the case became – not to mention they weren’t concentrated where a human protagonist would aim his spears. The team’s analysis also suggested that man’s limbs and front torso had had been preferentially targeted, they discovered using a “BodyMap 3D” - usually used on landscapes -, which suggested animal.

Long story short, the kinds of injuries this man suffered weren’t the kind inflicted by fellow humans; crabs were ruled out; bears and boars didn’t fit the bill. The team perused the literature, came across injuries on bone left by recent shark attacks that looked identical to what we had; and the light dawned. Their theory of prehistoric shark attack was validated by the expert George Burgess, head of the “International Shark Attack File” at the University of Florida.

Who dunnit? Probably either a great white (Carcharodon carcharias) or a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), the researchers say, based on the bite pattern and shark populations in the sea in question.

Which it was isn’t clear but the team adds that if it had been a white shark, probably only one was involved because they are solitary predators. But if it was a tiger shark, the man may have been attacked by multiple animals.

Great white sharkCredit: Terry Goss / Pterantula / Englis

A real Jaws

One can understand the archaeologists’ bewilderment, given the paucity of shark attacks in general and in the archaeological record, and the presence of bears and other humans, albeit bereft of cutting-edge weapons.

And thus the team reconstructed the attack according to the best of their understanding, reaching the conclusion that the victim had been alive.

The pelvis was bitten near the right leg joint, they observe: The prevalence of bites on his lower body suggest that he was probably in deep water, possibly swimming, when it happened. His left hand is gone.

The researchers even have a theory of how enough of him was recovered from a shark-infested marginal sea: He had been fishing with friends.

Dr. Mark Hudson, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Max Planck Institute, goes one further and speculates that they may have been fishing for sharks. Or the shark could have been attracted by the blood of fish in the water.

The Jomon culture in Japan is usually dated from about 14,000 to 2,300 years ago, which though subsisting on hunting, gathering and fishing, was also characterized by increasing sedentism and complexity. These were among the earliest makers of pottery known in the world, preceding the advent of ceramics in the Middle East by thousands of years.

This shark-attack victim was from the Late Jomon period, a time of climatic cooling and population decline. But be that as it may, the inhabitants of the islands throughout that period fished, and evidently heavily so; archaeological finds include the full gamut of accoutrements from ancient traps and nets to fishing hooks and harpoons. These people fished the shallows off their coasts and sailed to sea in dugout canoes – and yes, apparently among other things they ate sharks, likely caught using harpoons.

It bears adding that sharks don’t have bones, they are cartilaginous, meaning they don’t survive as well in the archaeological record. Except for their teeth, which are made of dentin, which is extremely hard, and survives rather better.

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