Last updated December 4, 2017 at 4:50 pm
A 6,000-year old human skull discovered in Papua New Guinea is the earliest-known victim of a tsunami, according to new geological analysis of the site.
The skull was found in 1929 by Australian geologist Paul Hossfeld about 12km inland from the modern town of Aitape on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, a site which was then a coastal lagoon due to higher sea levels.
The area was inundated by a tsunami, similar to the one that struck nearby in 1998 killing more than 2,000 people, says the study’s first author, UNSW Sydney scientist James Goff.
“We conclude that this person who died there so long ago is probably the oldest known tsunami victim in the world,” he said.
The skull has always been of great archaeological interest because it is one of the few early skeletal remains from the area, Mark Golitko of the University of Notre Dame, who worked on the project, said.
It was originally thought that it belonged to Homo erectus until the deposits were more reliably radiocarbon dated to about 3,500 to 7,000 years old.
“While the bones had been well studied, little attention had previously been paid to the sediments where they were unearthed,” Goff said.
“The geological similarities between these sediments and the sediments laid down during the 1998 tsunami made us realise that human populations in this area have been affected by these massive inundations for thousands of years.”
The study shows the grain size of sediment and geochemical composition was consistent with a tsunami inundation.
The researchers also identified a range of microscopic organisms from the ocean in the sediment, similar to those found in soil after the 1998 tsunami.
“After considering a range of possible scenarios, we believe that, on the balance of the evidence, the individual was either killed directly in the tsunami, or was buried just before it hit and the remains were redeposited,” says Goff.
The study “reinforces a growing recognition that tsunamis have had a significant influence on coastal populations throughout Pacific prehistory and doubtless elsewhere as well”, said study co-author Darren Curnoe, who is director of PANGEA – the Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre in the UNSW Faculty of Science.
The study is published in the journal Science Advances.