Aitape Skull: Scientists Might Have Found World’s First Tsunami Victim

New research suggests that the famed Aitape skull, a fossil found in Papua New Guinea almost nine decades ago, could belong to the world’s first tsunami victim.

When Australian geologist Paul Hossfeld discovered part of a human skull in Aitape, Papua New Guinea, in 1929, there was no mention of any cause of death, let alone that a tsunami possibly killed the person whom the skull belonged to. Earlier this week, the New York Times noted that Hossfeld originally thought the fossil was that of Homo erectus, a well-known ancestor of modern humans. It was later discovered that the skull was only about 6,000-years-old at most, making it more plausible that it belonged to a modern human.

In a new study published this week in the journal PLOS One, a team of researchers sought out to analyze the Aitape skull, returning to the site where Hossfeld found it 88 years ago, and try to determine the individual’s cause of death. Based on their findings, it appears that the Aitape skull’s owner might have been the first known tsunami victim, providing a historical backdrop for the natural disasters early humans living along the coasts of the Pacific Ocean had to deal with.

“Here we start to see human interaction with some nasty earthquakes and tsunamis,” said retired University of New South Wales Sydney geologist James Goff, who led the research when it kicked off in 2014.

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As recalled by Gizmodo Australia, the original research from 1929 came with many limitations. Hossfeld did not take any local soil samples or gather other forms of evidence, and did not analyze the area’s stratigraphic layers, either. All he did, the publication wrote, was to write down information on where he had found the skull fragment, and possibly other basic details on the area where he conducted his research.

Armed with modern scientific methods, Goff and his fellow researchers had much more to work with when they came back to the Papua New Guinea site. They gathered dirt and sediment in and around the site, performing chemical analysis and measuring the grains. As for the theory that they might have found the “oldest known” and first tsunami victim, the researchers based their findings on the preserved diatoms found in the spot. These are single-celled aquatic organisms that could be used to describe water conditions of the era.

“These sediments that the Aitape skull was in have pure marine diatoms in them, which is ocean water that’s inundating it,” said researcher Mark Golitko, from Notre Dame University, in a statement.

“It’s really high-energy ocean water — high-energy enough for these little tiny specks of silica that the diatoms build to be broken as they’re washing in.”

All in all, it was the “high-energy ocean water,” the sizes of the sediment grains, and the chemical features of the water that pointed to a possible tsunami, and a likely first tsunami victim as well. The owner of the Aitape skull is believed to have died a violent death when the tsunami took place, though it’s also possible that their grave might have been pulled apart by a later tsunami, which the researchers admitted is not too likely.

According to Goff, the sediments found in the area are similar to the ones that were spotted in the aftermath of the 1998 tsunami. Human populations in that part of Papua New Guinea might have been affected by such natural disasters for the past “thousands” of years, but that didn’t seem to deter them, as they kept living in the area despite the natural disasters.

Going forward, Goff’s team said, in a statement, that they’re hoping to learn more about how early humans lived and adjusted to life in a disaster-prone area.

[Featured Image by Igor Zh/Shutterstock]