Sharks have been on this planet for more than 400 million years – considerably longer than humans. That means ever since man has taken to the water, people have been coming into contact with these apex predators of the deep. Over time, our understanding of sharks has evolved considerably. While they were once thought of as monsters or gods – or sometimes a combination of the two – these days they are regarded as perfectly-evolved killers and nature’s greatest weapon.
Even since the first human spotted a shark, mankind has been fearful of the animal. But over the centuries, that fear has evolved. Though rare, shark attacks on humans are dramatic, and they have a way of capturing the popular imagination. For that reason, our understanding of sharks has been largely shaped by a handful of notable encounters. In particular, the great white shark and the oceanic whitetip shark have come to be seen as ruthless killing machines, thanks in no small part to historic attacks as well as books and Hollywood blockbusters.
So here we chart the history of humans and sharks over the years, from the earliest attempts to understand the underwater killers to the most recent attacks:
1. Sharks as gods: Man Eaters in the Ancient World
Ever since humans first took to the seas, sharks have been known – and feared. Of course, the people of the world’s ancient civilizations didn’t always know what sharks were, and so they often made up fantastical explanations for these fearsome creatures. What’s more, sometimes they weren’t simply feared but revered, and historians have uncovered numerous examples of sharks being regarded as gods or demi-gods by peoples living in the different corners of the world.
In ancient Greece, for example, learned men knew of sharks. In most cases, they learned about them second-hand, from the accounts passed down by fishermen who had seen them close-up, perhaps even witnessed or survived attacks. Here, people spoke of a shark-like creature called a Ketea. While no physical descriptions of the animals exist, the ancient writers did describe it as ravenous and aggressive, leading us to believe that it was sharks they were talking about. The ancient Greeks even had their own shark-like god. Named Lamia, he lived in the sea and was known to attack and eat children if he was displeased.
The Greeks weren’t alone in assigning god-like status to sharks. In Fiji, the people worshipped Dakuwaqa. Here, however, the warrior god was seen as largely benevolent, and fishermen made offerings to him in return for his protection. Similarly, the ancient inhabitants of Hawaii believed that a pair of shark gods, whom they named Ukupanipo and Kamohoalli’I controlled the oceans and decided how successful fishing expeditions would be.