The skeletal remains show the adult male suffered at least 790 deep, serrated injuries after being attacked in the Seto Inland Sea of the Japanese archipelago, according to a research paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.
His left hand was sheared off and he was probably alive during the attack — which an international team of scientists dated to between 1370 to 1010 BC.
A combination of archaeological science and forensic techniques have helped to show that his body is the earliest direct evidence for a shark attack on a human, they say.
Oxford University researchers J Alyssa White and Professor Rick Schulting were looking for evidence of violent trauma on the skeletal remains of prehistoric hunter-gatherers at Kyoto University when they came across the shark victim, now only identified as No 24, at the previously excavated site of Tsukumo.
The researchers said in a statement: ‘We were initially flummoxed by what could have caused at least 790 deep, serrated injuries to this man.
‘There were so many injuries and yet he was buried in the community burial ground, the Tsukumo Shell-mound cemetery site.’
They added: ‘The injuries were mainly confined to the arms, legs, and front of the chest and abdomen. Through a process of elimination, we ruled out human conflict and more commonly-reported animal predators or scavengers.’
Since archaeological cases of shark reports are extremely rare, they turned to forensic shark attack cases for clues and worked with expert George Burgess, director emeritus of the Florida Program for Shark Research.
They even put together a reconstruction of the attack.
The distribution of his wounds strongly suggests that he was alive at the time of attack, the researchers concluded.
In fact, his left hand was sheared off and this was possibly a defence wound, they say.
Excavation records show that his right leg was missing and his left leg was placed on top of his body in an inverted position.
Number 24’s body was soon recovered after the attack and buried with his people at the cemetery, the scientists say.
The scientists added: ‘Given the injuries, he was clearly the victim of a shark attack. The man may well have been fishing with companions at the time, since he was recovered quickly.
And, based on the character and distribution of the tooth marks, the most likely species responsible was either a tiger or white shark.’
Dr Mark Hudson, who co-authored the paper, said it is not clear if the victim was deliberately looking for sharks or if the creature was attracted by blood or bait from other fish.
He said: ‘Either way, 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.’