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A skeleton from Peru competes for the title of oldest shark attack victim

When it was reported that the oldest known case of a person killed by a shark involved a member of the Jōmon culture of Japan about 3,000 years ago, two investigators were made especially (SN: 23/07/21).

Back in 1976, bioarchaeologist Robert Benfer of the University of Missouri at Columbia and Harvard University anthropologist Jeffrey Quilter had participated in an excavation of the skeleton of a 17-year-old boy who showed signs of a fatal shark encounter. The boy’s left leg was missing and his bones from his right hip and right forearm showed deep bite marks characteristic of those made by sharks, scientists say.

“Successful shark bites usually involve ripping off a limb, often a leg, and ingesting it,” Benfer says. An unsuccessful attempt to drive away a shark probably resulted in injuries to the boy’s arm.

Radiocarbon dating has indicated that the teenager, whose remains were discovered at a site in the Peruvian village called Paloma, died about 6,000 years ago before being placed in a grave different from any other in his community, says Benfer, who led the research in Paloma in 1976 and in three more field seasons that ended in 1990. This could make the teen the oldest known shark attack victim.

Quilter described the young man’s shark-related injuries in two paragraphs in a 1989 book, Life and Death at Paloma. But the results were never published in an academic journal. Quilter and Benfer mailed the extract to Jōmon's investigators on July 26. “We were unaware of their claim so far, but we are willing to talk to them in more detail,” says Oxford University archaeologist J. Alyssa White, who led the Jōmon team.

Paloma is found on hills about 3.5 kilometers off the Pacific coast of Peru. There lived intermittently small groups in round reed huts between about 7,800 and 4,000 years ago. Paloma residents fished, collected or pigeon mainly for shellfish and collected edible plants.

Most of the 201 human graves excavated in Paloma were dug below or just outside the reed huts. But the young man with a missing leg was buried in a long, oval grave dug in an open area and left uncovered. Excavators found remnants of a reed grate that had been tied and covered with various woven rugs to form a cover or roof over the body. Items placed in the tomb included a shell, a large, flat rock, and several ropes, one with elaborate knots, and a tassel at one end.



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