A 6,000-year-old skull was unearthed in Papua New Guinea in 1929. Evidence suggests that the owner of the skull likely died from a catastrophic tsunami event, making this ancient person the oldest known tsunami victim in the world.
Aitape Skull At Paniri Creek
In 1929, Australian geologist Paul Hossfeld found a human skull in the bank of the Paniri Creek in Papua New Guinea, near the town of Aitape. The skull was initially believed to be those of a 45-year-old female from the Lower Pleistocene Age and was regarded as an important part of the study of early Australasia for 25 years. However, through the years, scientists began questioning the original gender and age classification of the skull, suggesting that it may have belonged to a male akin to modern New Guineans.
"It was originally thought that the skull belonged to Homo erectus until the deposits were more reliably radiocarbon dated to about 3500 to 7000 years old," said Dr. Mark Golitko of the University of Notre Dame and the Field Museum of Natural History, coauthor of the study.
While the skull has been thoroughly studied for decades, little research has been done on the place where it was found. In 2014, researchers went to the site to study geological samples from the area. By studying the sediment size and composition, as well as the microscopic organisms in them, researchers found significant similarities between the sediments near Paniri creek and the sediments during the 1998 tsunami that devastated Papua New Guinea and killed more than 2,000 people.
Oldest Known Tsunami Victim?
Because of the new findings, researchers believe that the site was swamped by high-energy marine incursion on more than one occasion. This is supported by the active status of Papua New Guinea's active tectonics.
As such, researchers considered the possibilities as to how the skull came to the site but believe one to be the most plausible. According to researchers, the most likely possibility is that the owner of the skull was a victim of a tsunami over 6,000 years ago.
There is the question of why the rest of the body is missing when victims' remains during other tsunami events were recovered intact, and researchers turn to the 1998 tsunami to complete the puzzle. During the 1998 tsunami, recovery efforts to retrieve the victims' bodies had to be halted after a week because crocodiles were already feeding on them. It's possible that the case is the same for the Aitape skull.
"We conclude that this person who died there so long ago is probably the oldest known tsunami victim in the world," said the study's first author Professor James Goff.
The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE.