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Human remains recovered from ancient volcanic eruption

The eruption of the volcano Thera in the Mediterranean nearly 4,000 years ago was one of the biggest disasters in human history, but human remains from the event have eluded archaeologists until now.

(CN) — Scientists have dug up the first recorded human remains from the ancient Thera volcano eruption, one of the largest eruptions in human history that many historians say fundamentally changed the course of the world.

Despite its status as one of the largest catastrophes in recorded history, we know surprisingly little about the Thera volcano eruption — including when it actually happened. Experts put the event at around 1600 B.C., give or take about a hundred years, but the archaeologists have yet to settle on a definitive date.

Even direct evidence of the explosion has proven tricky to pin down. While the volcano’s eruption on the Mediterranean island of Santorini devastated the surrounding areas, particularly the island’s Minoan settlement in Akrotiri, remains of human victims have never turned up. Evidence from the tsunamis caused by the eruption has also been difficult to find, causing some experts to suggest that the Minoan people largely evacuated the island when the volcano first showed signs of the impending eruption.

But in a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers led by Vasıf Şahoğlu from the University of Ankara reveal that they’ve found the first ever human remains from the catastrophic event.

The remains were found at Çeşme-Bağlararası in modern-day Turkey, a site that was rocked by what researchers believe to have been at least four different tsunamis caused by the eruption of Thera. Experts studied a layer of volcanic ash at the site and used a series of archaeological and sediment analysis techniques to help build a better understanding on what happened to the area following the explosion.

Searching through the tsunami debris ultimately led experts to the first-of-their-kind remains. They found an articulated skeleton of one male victim from the disaster, as well as the skeleton of a dog.

Interestingly, they found the human skeleton a few feet underneath a series of pits dug into the earth. Experts believe these pits were made by survivors from the tragedy who were attempting search-and-rescue, and the remains found by archaeologists represent at least one soul who was not found.

“At Çeşme-Bağlararas this effort is visible in the presence of misshapen pits, interpreted here as the preserved remains from their effort to retrieve victims from the tsunami debris,” the study states. “The human skeleton was located about a meter below such a pit, suggesting that it was too deep to be found and retrieved and therefore (probably unknowingly) left behind.”

On top of finding the first-ever direct remains of victims from the Thera eruption, researchers say their findings should help shed some light on the timeline of the disaster. According to calibrated radiocarbon data from the study, the explosion could have taken place no earlier than 1612 B.C., giving archeologists a more narrow window of the estimated date.

Ultimately, researchers say their effort shows the true scope of the Thera disaster. Their findings suggest that the deadly tsunamis caused by the eruption reached as far as the northern Aegean region, an area previously believed to only be touched by the volcano’s ash fallout. This comes after previous research has also suggested that the climate consequences from the massive eruption continued to plague the region for decades afterwards, though the extent of the fallout — as well as its potential role in bringing down the Minoans' cultural grip on the area — are still to be debated.

Experts hope their findings and the new research analysis techniques used to make them possible will help to answer some of these mysteries.

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