Ancient Skull May Be History’s Earliest Known Tsunami Victim
In 1929, an Australian geologist named Paul S. Hossfeld was investigating the northern coast of Papua New Guinea for petroleum.
He found bone fragments embedded in a creek bank about seven miles inland and about 170 feet above sea level.
At first, Dr. Hossfeld believed that the specimen was from the skull of Homo erectus, an extinct relative of modern humans. Later analysis would show it belonged to a modern human who lived about 6,000 years ago.
Now recent research suggests the remains known as the Aitape skull could be something more: the earliest known victim of a tsunami.
The findings, published Wednesday in the journal PLoS One, may offer useful historical context for how ancient humans living along the Pacific Ocean’s coasts faced fierce natural hazards.
“Here we start to see human interaction with some nasty earthquakes and tsunamis,” said James Goff, a retired geologist at the University of New South Wales Sydney and author of the study.
Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of a large, bountiful island just north of Australia (the western side is part of Indonesia).
In 1998, after decades of relative geological quiet, a devastating tsunami rocked the country, killing more than 2,000 people.
“This huge volume of water struck the coast and swept away everything,” said John Terrell, an anthropologist at the Field Museum in Chicago who has completed research in the country and is a co-author on the paper.
“The villages I knew and loved were sheared off.”
After struggling for almost two decades to get funding for the project, he returned to the island in 2014 to explore the rain forests and crystal clear creek where Dr. Hossfeld had discovered the skull 85 years earlier.
Dr. Hossfeld had left detailed notes about where he had found the skull, which helped guide Dr. Goff and his team as they collected samples from the same sediment layer at a nearby river-cut cliff.
Back at the lab, they performed geochemical analysis to determine whether the sediment level had been deposited by a tsunami 6,000 years ago.
Because they had previously analyzed geochemical signals from sediment on the island following the 1998 tsunami, the team knew which clues to look for, like grain size and composition.
They found that the sediment collected from the skull site contained fossilized deep sea diatoms. These microscopic organisms were a telltale sign that ocean water had drowned the area at some point.
The researchers also found geochemical signals that matched the signatures they collected in 1998, offering additional evidence that a tsunami had struck around 6,000 years ago.
“Bang! Right where the diatoms were looking very sexy and you’re getting excited, you have a signal that says, ‘Hi, I’m seawater,’” said Dr. Goff.
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