Humans may have survived volcanic super-eruption 74,000 years ago

  Last updated February 26, 2020 at 11:02 am


Archaeological evidence sheds new light on the super-eruption that was thought to have brought human species close to extinction.

super-eruption_mount toba_lake toba

It looks peaceful now, but Lake Toba – the largest volcanic lake in the world – was formed by the violent super-eruption some 70,000 years ago. Credit: WHY Photography

Why This Matters: The findings contribute to understanding the global impact of the catastrophic eruption.

The recent discovery of stone tools in India has revealed that humans survived and coped with one of the largest volcanic events in human history.

The intensity and impact of the historic Toba super-eruption in Indonesia sparked a long-running debate among researchers involving climatic, geological, archaeological and genetic evidence, until now.

Some have argued that the eruption caused an extended volcanic winter that disrupted human dispersal out of Africa and the colonisation of Australasia, although archaeological evidence has been limited.

Also: Out of Africa, but not as one

Now an international study by researchers from Australia, Germany, India, the US and the UK, led by Chris Clarkson from the University of Queensland, has found that human occupation of northern India spanned the Mount Toba eruption.

Similarities in tools suggest the regions were linked by early modern human dispersal

In a paper in the journal Nature Communications they describe a large collection of stone artefacts from archaeological excavations at Dhaba in the Middle Son River Valley which indicate that the area has been continuously occupied over the last 80,000 years.

super-eruption_stone tools_mount toba

a–c Levallois flakes, Dhaba 1 and 2. d, e Levallois blades, Dhaba 1. f, g Ochre, Dhaba 1. h, i Microblade cores, Dhaba 3. j Notched scraper, Dhaba 1. k–m Levallois points, Dhaba 1 and 2. n, o Agate and chert microblades, Dhaba 3. p–s Recurrent Levallois cores, Dhaba 1–3. t, u Backed microliths, Dhaba 3. White arrows indicate scar directions. Black arrows with circles indicate impact points. Credit: Clarkson et al.

“These toolkits were present at Dhaba before and after the Toba super-eruption, indicating that populations survived the so-called catastrophe,” says Clarkson.

Similarities between Levallois tool technology (stone tools created by flint knapping) at Dhaba and those found in Arabia between 100,000 and 47,000 years ago and in northern Australia 65,000 years ago also suggest linkage of these regions by an early modern human dispersal out of Africa, they say.

The study shows that around 48,000 years ago in Dhaba there was a shift to microlithic technology – the production of smaller stone tools, typically a few centimetres in length.

Human populations thrived following the super-eruption

The new research further refutes suggestions that the super-eruption caused a six-year volcanic winter that resulted in a 1000-year cooling of the Earth’s surface and the near extinction of our own species.

And Clarkson says archaeological evidence from other sites in Africa, India and Asia also supports the idea that the Toba eruption had minimal effects on humans and did not cause a population bottleneck.

Also: New fossil human relative found in the Philippines

“In fact, archaeological sites in southern Africa show human populations thrived following the Toba super-eruption,” he says.

“Climate and vegetation records from Lake Malawi in East Africa likewise show no evidence for a volcanic winter at the time of the eruption.”

Genetic studies similarly have not detected a clear population bottleneck around 74,000 years ago.

“In Sumatra, close to the eruption itself, colleagues found Homo sapiens teeth which dated back to 73,000-63,000 years ago,” Clarkson says.

“This indicates Homo sapiens were living in Sumatra in a closed canopy rainforest environment soon after the eruption.”

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About the Author

Nick Carne
Nick Carne is the Editorial Manager for the Royal Institution of Australia.

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