First Known Human Tsunami Victim Discovered, 6,000 Years Later

(CN) – Scientists believe they have discovered one of the earliest human victims of a tsunami after finding geological sediments in a 6,000-year-old skull.

Researchers from several institutions, including the University of Notre Dame and the University of South Wales, have conducted sedimentary studies on a unique archaeological find first unearthed in 1929 and hypothesize the person in question was likely killed in a tsunami similar to the one that hit Indonesia in 2004.

The skull was found in what is presently known as Papua New Guinea, near a small town called Aitape about 5,000 miles north of Australia.

“The skull has always been of great archaeological interest because it is one of the few early skeletal remains from the area,” says Mark Golitko of the University of Notre Dame and The Field Museum. “It was originally thought that the skull belonged to Homo erectus until the deposits were more reliably radiocarbon dated to about 5,000 to 6,000 years. Back then, sea levels were higher and the area would have been just behind the shoreline.”

Golitko and the other researchers published their study in PLOS ONE on Wednesday, saying the new information regarding one of the first known tsunami victims can help shed light on the dangers of the present world.

“Maybe this individual can help us as scientists to convince skeptics today that all of us on earth must take climate change and rising sea levels seriously as the threats they truly are,” said John Terrell, Regenstein curator of Pacific anthropology at The Field Museum and one of the study’s authors.

Terrell, in particular, has been conducting archeological and anthropological research on Papua New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, for years.

Research related to tsunamis has picked up in importance not only as it relates to rising sea levels and climate change, but also in light of one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history – the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

More than 230,000 people died after a magnitude 9.2 earthquake that struck just off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia, setting off a series of tsunamis that struck parts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand.

The earthquake itself was the third largest ever recorded on a seismograph and the faulting was the longest ever recorded, lasting between 8 1/2 and 10 minutes.

But Wednesday’s studies focused more on oceanic conditions thousands of years ago, using new technologies to analyze geologic sediments in the skull that provides a window into ages long lapsed.

“We have now been able to confirm what we have long suspected,” said James Goff at the University of New South Wales in Australia, an author of the report. “The geological similarities between the sediments at the place where the skull was found and sediments laid down during the 1998 tsunami that hit this same coastline have made us realize that human populations in this area have been affected by these massive inundations for thousands of years.”

The researchers say that this shows while many continue to think of the region as a paradisiacal enclave in an otherwise hostile world, tsunamis have been rending the coastal regions in Oceania for millennia.

“It is easy to be fooled by the great beauty of the Sepik coast of Papua New Guinea into thinking that surely this part of the world must be as close to paradise-on-earth as anybody could want,” Terrell said. “This person’s skull is witness to the fact that here as elsewhere natural disasters can suddenly and unexpectedly turn the world upside down.”

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