6000-Year-Old Skull Might Belong to World's Oldest Tsunami Victim

Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Scientists speak to residents in Aitape.
Mark Golitko

Tsunamis and other natural disasters have taken a deadly toll on human populations for millennia, and now we may have the oldest example of that truth yet. An international team of anthropologists and environmental researchers recently analyzed a cracked skull that belonged to a person who likely died in a tsunami some 6000 years ago. They detail their find in a new study published in PLOS One.

The partial skull in question, known as the Aitape skull, was found in Papua New Guinea in 1929 during a geological survey by an Australian scientist named Paul Hossfield. It has since been dated to the mid-Holocene epoch, or around 6000 years ago.

For the current study, the scientists returned to the site of the 1929 discovery to sample and analyze the sediment there to find out more about what might have killed the person millennia ago. They had only Hossfield's basic field descriptions to go on, but University of Notre Dame anthropologist Mark Golitko, one of the study’s authors, says that based on those descriptions, they think they were able to sample within 100 yards or so of the skull's original location.

The top of a brown cracked skull against a pink background
Arthur Durband

Based on the grain size, chemical signature, and marine microalgae found within the sediment samples, they were able to determine that around the time that the skull was buried, the area was inundated with water, probably from a tsunami. At that time, the site, located near the present-day town of Aitape, would have been just along the shoreline. Aitape was also the site of a devastating tsunami in 1998, and the Holocene sediments resembled the ones associated with that disaster.

It's possible that the skull was buried before the tsunami hit, and the grave was ripped apart by the waters and the rest of the bones scattered. However, during the powerful 1998 tsunami that killed more than 2100 people in Papua New Guinea, bodies buried in modern cemeteries were not uprooted even as the sediment above them washed away, making it more likely that the ancient skull belonged to someone killed in the disaster.

The new analysis has "made us realize that human populations in this area have been affected by these massive inundations for thousands of years," study co-author James Goff of the University of New South Wales said in a press statement. "Given the evidence we have in hand, we are more convinced than before that this person was either violently killed by a tsunami, or had their grave ripped open by one."

Field Museum anthropologist John Terrell, another co-author of the study, said, "If we are right about how this person had died thousands of years ago, we have dramatic proof that living by the sea isn't always a life of beautiful golden sunsets and great surfing conditions."

After 110 Million Years, This Spider Fossil's Eyes Are All Aglow

© Changkun Park, Electron Probe Micro Analyzer, Korea Polar Research Institute
© Changkun Park, Electron Probe Micro Analyzer, Korea Polar Research Institute

A big, hairy spider is enough to give anyone a fright. So you can imagine what a set of eight glowing eyes attached to a body like that might do to an arachnophobe's psyche. One such spider was discovered recently by researchers, but don’t worry—the iridescent-eyed arachnid has been dead for 110 million years.

As Popular Science reports, this rare, fossilized specimen was found in South Korea’s Lower Cretaceous Jinju Formation. The find was unusual for a couple of reasons. For one, spiders are not usually preserved in rock because the soft-bodied creatures decay easily. It’s also not every day that you see a long-dead spider with glowing eyes. On top of that, researchers found two well-preserved examples of these spiders, which were described in a recent issue of the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

Both specimens belong to Lagonomegopidae, an extinct family that predated jumping spiders. The glow is caused by a layer of tissue called tapetum lucidum, which coats the spider’s eyes and reflects light, allowing the spider to hunt at night with ease. Many animals have it—including cats, dogs, horses, deer, raccoons, and some modern spiders—but this is the first paper to describe its existence in a fossilized spider. The tapetum is crescent-shaped and “looks a bit like a Canadian canoe,” according to Paul Selden, a geology professor at the University of Kansas and co-author of the paper.

“Because these spiders were preserved in strange silvery flecks on dark rock, what was immediately obvious was their rather large eyes brightly marked with crescentic features,” Selden said in a statement.

The fossilized spider
Paul Selden

Researchers now want to go back and take another look at similar spiders preserved in amber, which are far more common than spiders fossilized in rock. The challenge is determining whether those specimens also have a layer of tapetum lucidum coating their eyes.

“Amber fossils are beautiful, they look wonderful, but they preserve things in a different way,” Selden said. “Now, we want to go back and look at the amber fossils and see if we can find the tapetum, which stares out at you from rock fossils but isn’t so obvious in amber ones because the mode of preservation is so different.”

[h/t Popular Science]

A (Still-Sharp) Medieval Sword Was Pulled from a Sewer in Denmark

Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Pipe layer Jannick Vestergaard and engineer Henning Nøhr hold up the sword they found.
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

If the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur is anything to go by, anyone who successfully extracts a sword in a stone will be treated like royalty. The fable doesn’t say anything about the reward one gets for removing a medieval weapon from feces, though.

As Smithsonian reports, a pipe layer and an engineer recently found a sword from the medieval era while doing construction work on a sewer in Aalborg, Denmark’s fourth-largest city. The relic was plucked from a layer of waste that had accumulated atop an old slab of pavement that once ran through the city.

Most remarkably, the sword was still intact—and the blade still sharp. It’s about 3.5 feet long and of extremely high quality, according to archaeologists. The sword may have been used between 1100 and 1400, but the likeliest explanation is that it got separated from its owner sometime in the 14th century. “Findings from here have always pointed to the 1300s, so the sword must have ended up in the earth in this century,” archaeologist Kenneth Nielsen said in a translated statement.

The sword next to a tape measure
Nordjyllands Historiske Museum (Historical Museum of Northern Jutland)

It’s rare for such an important historical artifact to turn up in such an unlikely—and unhygienic—place. Swords were valuable and highly prized possessions, and they were treated as such. They were typically buried with their owners, but no graves are situated above the sewer where the weapon was found.

The country’s history offers some clues about what may have transpired, though. In the 1300s, power struggles and internecine war were common throughout Denmark. “The best explanation we can come up with is that the owner of the sword was defeated in a battle,” Nielsen told The Local Denmark. “In the tumult, it was then trod down into the layer of mud that formed the street back then.”

Similarly, a 14th-century sword was found in a Polish peat bog in 2017, and archaeologists suspect the owner either sunk into the marsh and met a grisly end, or merely dropped his weapon and was unable to retrieve it.

While these questions will likely remain unanswered, members of the public will have the chance to admire the Danish "sewer sword" in all its glory at the Aalborg Historiske Museum (Aalborg Historical Museum), which is located near the site where the sword was found. Fortunately for future visitors, it will be cleaned and preserved first.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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