3,000-year-old skeleton missing a hand and a leg is world's oldest shark attack victim

And researchers are able to piece together the victim's dying moments in astonishing detail.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
  • Third place film critic, 2021 LA Press Club National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards
Leslie Katz
3 min read

It wasn't until years after Tsukumo No. 24's excavation that a cause of death was finally assigned. 

Laboratory of Physical Anthropology, Kyoto University

Scientists have solved the mystery of a prehistoric man's grisly death. After methodically studying his multiple violent injuries, they say a shark is to blame, and they've reconstructed the attack in stunning detail.   

"He most likely lost his right leg and left hand in the attack, and his wounds would have been fatal as they totaled at least 790 tooth marks that reached to the bone," the Oxford-led researchers say in a study published Wednesday in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. "Although numerous blood vessels and organs would have been impacted, it is likely that at least his larger lower limb arteries would have been severed early in the attack. This would have resulted in a relatively quick death from hypovolemic shock." 

The research team calls the unfortunate man the world's oldest shark attack victim on record. The assault predates 5th century Greek writings and 8th century BC illustrations of shark attacks, as well as known archaeological cases.   

Radiocarbon dating places the man between 1370 and 1010 BCE during the fisher-hunter-gatherer Jōmon era in prehistoric Japan, a time when shark hunting likely occurred. He is estimated to have stood just over 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall. 

J. Alyssa White and professor Rick Schulting of Oxford first encountered the shark victim as part of a larger project investigating violent trauma in the skeletal remains of hunter-gatherers of the Japanese archipelago. At Kyoto University, the pair came upon a skeleton dubbed No. 24. It had been excavated around 1920 from the Tsukumo cemetery site in Okayama, Japan, near Japan's Seto Inland Sea. 

At first, the researchers were baffled by the man's inordinate injuries. Deep serrated cuts of varying sizes and shapes covered his bones, a hand had been sheared off, and a leg was missing. It wasn't clear to them how, or why, another human would have caused such extreme injuries, or how commonly reported local animal attacks could have produced them. 

Through a process of elimination, the researchers began to suspect a shark. They explored modern forensics data on shark attacks for clues and consulted with George Burgess, director emeritus of the Florida Program for Shark Research, who agreed with their assessment that a shark caused the man's wounds. 

The scientists also re-created the pattern of Tsukumo 24's injuries by mapping them onto a 3D model of the human skeleton. The location of the wounds suggests the victim was alive at the time of the attack and that he may have lost his hand while trying to defend himself.  Such vivid details paint an immediate, and very human, picture of one man's struggle.  

"We are still vulnerable in the same ways as Tsukumo Individual No. 24 was in the water and we still pay respects to our loved ones by burying them properly," White says. "That is what stands out most to me about all archaeology -- we are all a part of one human story, with all of its accompanying sorrows and joys." 


A distribution map of Tsukumo No. 24's traumatic injuries. The red features represent wounds from bite marks, the orange represents overlapping striations, and the purple indicates fracture lines.

Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

It's uncertain whether Tsukumo 24 was deliberately targeting sharks or the shark that ended his life was attracted by blood or bait, says study co-author Mark Hudson, a researcher with the Max Planck Institute in Germany. "Either way," Hudson said, "this find not only provides a new perspective on ancient Japan, but is also a rare example of archaeologists being able to reconstruct a dramatic episode in the life of a prehistoric community."

That the researchers were able to chart the attack in such immediate detail owes to the man's body being found in such excellent condition last century. Soon after the ancient attack, most of Tsukumo 24's body was recovered and buried in a shell mound according to funerary practices characteristic of the Jōmon culture. 

Since the man was recovered so quickly, the researchers posit he may have been attacked while fishing with companions. Based on tooth marks, they believe the shark to have been either a tiger or white shark. Remains of both species have been found in the area.  

"The shark attack presented here is just one small part of the larger, lived experience of the Jōmon people," White says. "Today human shark attack fatalities average around 10 per year, yet humans estimated to kill approximately 100 million sharks annually."