As It Happens

Scientists find world's oldest evidence of a shark attack — and it isn't pretty

In a new study from the University of Oxford, archeologists shared evidence of what could be the earliest known shark attack in recorded history — a 3,000-year-old human skeleton marked with gashes and puncture wounds.

Skeleton marked with gashes and puncture wounds dates back 3,000 years

The original excavation photograph of shark attack victim Number 24 from the 1920s. (Submitted by J. Alyssa White/Laboratory of Physical Anthropology/Kyoto University)

Sharks rarely attack humans, but they have a way of inspiring great fear and fascination.

In a new study from the University of Oxford, archeologists shared evidence of what could be the earliest known shark attack in recorded history — a 3,000-year-old human skeleton marked with gashes and puncture wounds.

"It's a bit of a gruesome story, but because of the sheer number of wounds, we can begin to piece it together quite coherently," archeology student J. Alyssa White told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The findings were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Listen: J. Alyssa White describes what could be the world's earliest shark attack 

White was visiting Kyoto University in 2016 to investigate human conflict in Japan's earliest historical era, the Jomon period, when she came across the bones of an adult male known as Number 24 in a community burial ground at the Tsukumo Shell-mound cemetery site.

Upon a closer look, the archeologist recorded at least 790 injuries on the body's remains.

You feel for him a lot.- J. Alyssa White, PhD candidate at University of Oxford

White and one of her co-authors Rick Schulting first thought the wounds could have been caused by metal weapons. However, that theory could not explain why there were so many lesions in certain parts of the body. Plus, there were no metal weapons at that time in Japanese history.

They ruled out terrestrial carnivores and scavengers as possible predators before looking to marine life. That's when they found an archeological example of a shark attack more than 1,000 years ago near modern day Puerto Rico.

J. Alyssa White is a PhD candidate at the University of Oxford. (Submitted by J. Alyssa White)

The traumatic injuries on Number 24's arms, legs, front of chest and abdomen looked similar to the ones caused by that tiger shark.

"Most likely he was in deeper water, out fishing with companions," White said.

In her research, she also found a photo of the original burial from excavations that took place around 1920. In it, she saw Number 24's right leg and left hand were missing. There were bite marks around his wrist and hips. And his left leg was buried on top of him, detached from the rest of his body. 

"You have a concentration of injuries to the lower body because he was maybe swimming or something and the shark came from below. Probably the right leg was removed during the attack. And you tend to get injuries to the hands as the defensive motion in shark attacks. He probably lost his left hand in trying to defend himself from [an] attack from below," White said.

The left hip bone shows fractures and tooth marks that researchers believe were caused by a shark. (J. Alyssa White/Laboratory of Physical Anthropology/Kyoto University)

This is an "exciting" discovery for the archeologist. Just as shark attacks are a rare occurrence, evidence of an ancient attack is extremely rare. 

"The chances of someone being in a shark attack, one this severe, and then to have been buried in a shell mound that protected his bones from the relatively acidic soil in Japan that usually erodes organic material quite quickly, and then for us to find him and be able to investigate his remains, it's quite remarkable," White said.

Number 24's last moments

The investigation into Number 24's cause of death was a chilling one for White.

"I certainly talked to him a lot while I was working with him," she said. "At first it was, 'What happened to you? What caused all of these marks?' And then later it was, 'Oh, dear, there's another one,' because I kept on finding more and more injuries. You feel for him a lot."

While his remains show him suffering a severe trauma in his last moments, his burial indicates a community that cared for him in the aftermath, she said. 

"He seems to have been treated no differently, which is, I think, the important part," White said.

"This was just a very rare thing to have occurred, the way that he likely died. But he was just a member of his community. He was buried in almost like a crouched position, within a shell-mound within this communal cemetery. And he had to have been recovered relatively quickly. His bones weren't out in the water for a long time. So he's obviously someone who was cared for and, you know, taken care of within that group."


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview with Alyssa White produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.


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