Papua New Guinea skull may belong to ‘world’s oldest tsunami victim’: scientists

Updates from : The Hindu :

The partially preserved Aitape Skull was discovered nearly 90 years ago by Australian geologist Paul Hossfeld

Scientists have identified what may be the world’s oldest tsunami victim by analysing a 6,000-year-old human skull that was discovered in Papua New Guinea in 1929.

The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, shows that the region has experienced repeated catastrophic tsunamis that have caused death and destruction throughout history.

“We have discovered that the place where the Aitape Skull was unearthed was a coastal lagoon that was inundated by a large tsunami about 6,000 years ago, similar to the one that struck nearby with such devastating effect in 1998, killing more than 2,000 people,” said James Goff, a scientist at University of New South Wales in Australia.

“We conclude that this person, who died there so long ago, is probably the oldest known tsunami victim in the world,” said Mr. Goff.

The partially preserved Aitape Skull was discovered nearly 90 years ago by Australian geologist Paul Hossfeld at a site, which is about 12 kilometres inland from the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, near the modern town of Aitape.

Great archaeological interest

“The skull has always been of great archaeological interest because it is one of the few early skeletal remains from the area,” said Mark Golitko from the University of Notre Dame and the Field Museum of Natural History in the US.

“It was originally thought that the skull belonged to Homo erectus until the deposits were more reliably radiocarbon dated to about 3,500 to 7,000 years old,” said Mr. Golitko.

“At that time, sea levels were higher and the area would have been near the coast,” he said.

The team visited the site in 2014 and collected samples from the same geological deposits observed by Hossfeld, for analysis in the laboratory.

They co-existed with massive inundations

“While the bones had been well studied, little attention had previously been paid to the sediments where they were unearthed,” said Mr. Goff.

“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,” he said.

The team studied details of the sediment including its grain size and geochemical composition, which can help identify a tsunami inundation.

They also identified a range of microscopic organisms from the ocean in the sediment, similar to those found in soil after the 1998 tsunami. More detailed radio-carbon dating of samples was also performed.

“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,” said Mr. Goff.

Remains eaten by crocodiles

Following the tsunami on July 17 in 1998, which penetrated up to five kilometres inland, attempts to retrieve victims from the lagoon were called off after a week because crocodiles were feeding on the corpses, leading to their dismemberment.

This may also explain why the skull of the person who died 6,000 years ago was found on its own, without any other bones, the researchers said.

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