Brittany Collins Kaufman | October 27, 2017
In 1929, Australian geologist Paul Hossfeld stumbled upon a partial human skull in a mangrove outside the coastal town of Aitape in Papua New Guinea. Originally thought to belong to Homo erectus, the skull was subsequently dated to the mid-Holocene period, about 6,000 years ago. Now, new research suggests the bone fragment belongs to the world’s oldest known tsunami victim — an important piece in the conversation about how modern populations can adapt to rising sea levels.
Mark Golitko, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame, worked with colleagues from the Field Museum in Chicago and institutes in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea to study the Aitape skull and the area it was found in. In a new PLOS One paper published Wednesday (Oct. 25), the researchers lay out evidence showing that the skull was victim to a violent tsunami that struck the coast about 6,000 years ago.
Golitko and his research team went back to the place the skull was found, near a place Hossfeld called Paniri Creek, to analyze the soil and strata for clues about what killed this person.
“Hossfeld hadn’t really sampled anything; he just did a field description and took the skull out and that was it,” Golitko said. “What we were doing was actually going in and sampling the sediments to bring back for lab analysis that would tell us a lot more about the age and depositional history there.
“We don’t know exactly where Hossfeld found the skull, but I think we were within 100 meters of the original location based on his description. We were able to use modern scientific techniques to understand a little more about how this place formed and what we were actually looking at,” he said.