Human Populations survived the Toba volcanic super-eruption 74,000 years ago

February 25, 2020

The Toba super-eruption was one of the largest volcanic events over the last two million years, about 5,000 times larger than Mount St. Helen's eruption in the 1980s. The eruption occurred 74,000 years ago on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, and was argued to have ushered in a "volcanic winter" lasting six to ten years, leading to a 1,000 year-long cooling of the Earth's surface. Theories purported that the volcanic eruption would have led to major catastrophes, including the decimation of hominin populations and mammal populations in Asia, and the near extinction of our own species. The few surviving Homo sapiens in Africa were said to have survived by developing sophisticated social, symbolic and economic strategies that enabled them to eventually re-expand and populate Asia 60,000 years ago in a single, rapid wave along the Indian Ocean coastline.

Fieldwork in southern India conducted in 2007 by some of this study's authors challenged these theories, leading to major debates between archaeologists, geneticists and earth scientists about the timing of human dispersals Out of Africa and the impact of the Toba super-eruption on climate and environments. The current study continues the debate, providing evidence that Homo sapiens were present in Asia earlier than expected and that the Toba super-eruption wasn't as apocalyptic as believed.

The Toba volcanic super-eruption and human evolution

The current study reports on a unique 80,000 year-long stratigraphic record from the Dhaba site in northern India's Middle Son Valley. Stone tools uncovered at Dhaba in association with the timing of the Toba event provide strong evidence that Middle Palaeolithic tool-using populations were present in India prior to and after 74,000 years ago. Professor J.N. Pal, principal investigator from the University of Allahabad in India notes that "Although Toba ash was first identified in the Son Valley back in the 1980s, until now we did not have associated archaeological evidence, so the Dhaba site fills in a major chronological gap."

Professor Chris Clarkson of the University of Queensland, lead author of the study, adds, "Populations at Dhaba were using stone tools that were similar to the toolkits being used by Homo sapiens in Africa at the same time. The fact that these toolkits did not disappear at the time of the Toba super-eruption or change dramatically soon after indicates that human populations survived the so-called catastrophe and continued to create tools to modify their environments." This new archaeological evidence supports fossil evidence that humans migrated out of Africa and expanded across Eurasia before 60,000 years ago. It also supports genetic findings that humans interbred with archaic species of hominins, such as Neanderthals, before 60,000 years ago.

Toba, climate change and human resilience

Though the Toba super-eruption was a colossal event, few climatologists and earth scientists continue to support the original formulation of the "volcanic winter" scenario, suggesting that the Earth's cooling was more muted and that Toba may not have actually caused the subsequent glacial period. Recent archaeological evidence in Asia, including the findings unearthed in this study, does not support the theory that hominin populations went extinct on account of the Toba super-eruption.

Instead, archaeological evidence indicates that humans survived and coped with one of the largest volcanic events in human history, demonstrating that small bands of hunter-gatherers were adaptable in the face of environmental change. Nevertheless, the peoples who lived around Dhaba more than 74,000 years ago do not seem to have significantly contributed to the gene pool of contemporary peoples, suggesting that these hunter-gatherers likely faced a series of challenges to their long-term survival, including the dramatic environmental changes of the following millennia. In summarizing the wider implications of this study, Professor Michael Petraglia of the Max Planck Institute says, "The archaeological record demonstrates that although humans sometimes show a remarkable level of resilience to challenges, it is also clear that people did not necessarily always prosper over the long term."
Publication information:

Title: Human occupation of northern India spans the Toba super-eruption ~74,000 years ago

Authors: Chris Clarkson, Clair Harris, Bo Li, Christina M. Neudorf, Richard G. Roberts, Christine Lane, Kasih Norman, Jagannath Pal, Sacha Jones, Ceri Shipton, Jinu Koshy, M.C. Gupta, D.P. Mishra, A.K. Dubey, Nicole Boivin, and Michael Petraglia.

Publication: Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-14668-4.

Media Contacts:

Prof. Michael Petraglia
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Kahlaische Strasse 10
07745 Jena
Phone: +49 (0) 15127572523

Prof. Chris Clarkson
School of Social Science
University of Queensland
Brisbane, Queensland 4072, Australia
Phone: +61 7 33653235

Prof. J.N. Pal
Former Head and Professor
Ancient History Culture and Archaeology
University of Allahabad, Uttar
Pradesh, India
Phone: +91 9415636643

AJ Zeilstra/ Petra Mader
Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
Public Relations & Press Office
Kahlaische Str. 10
07745 Jena
Phone: +49 (0) 3641 686-950 / 960

Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

Related Climate Change Articles from Brightsurf:

Are climate scientists being too cautious when linking extreme weather to climate change?
Climate science has focused on avoiding false alarms when linking extreme events to climate change.

Mysterious climate change
New research findings underline the crucial role that sea ice throughout the Southern Ocean played for atmospheric CO2 in times of rapid climate change in the past.

Mapping the path of climate change
Predicting a major transition, such as climate change, is extremely difficult, but the probabilistic framework developed by the authors is the first step in identifying the path between a shift in two environmental states.

Small change for climate change: Time to increase research funding to save the world
A new study shows that there is a huge disproportion in the level of funding for social science research into the greatest challenge in combating global warming -- how to get individuals and societies to overcome ingrained human habits to make the changes necessary to mitigate climate change.

Sub-national 'climate clubs' could offer key to combating climate change
'Climate clubs' offering membership for sub-national states, in addition to just countries, could speed up progress towards a globally harmonized climate change policy, which in turn offers a way to achieve stronger climate policies in all countries.

Review of Chinese atmospheric science research over the past 70 years: Climate and climate change
Over the past 70 years since the foundation of the People's Republic of China, Chinese scientists have made great contributions to various fields in the research of atmospheric sciences, which attracted worldwide attention.

A CERN for climate change
In a Perspective article appearing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Tim Palmer (Oxford University), and Bjorn Stevens (Max Planck Society), critically reflect on the present state of Earth system modelling.

Fairy-wrens change breeding habits to cope with climate change
Warmer temperatures linked to climate change are having a big impact on the breeding habits of one of Australia's most recognisable bird species, according to researchers at The Australian National University (ANU).

Believing in climate change doesn't mean you are preparing for climate change, study finds
Notre Dame researchers found that although coastal homeowners may perceive a worsening of climate change-related hazards, these attitudes are largely unrelated to a homeowner's expectations of actual home damage.

Older forests resist change -- climate change, that is
Older forests in eastern North America are less vulnerable to climate change than younger forests, particularly for carbon storage, timber production, and biodiversity, new research finds.

Read More: Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to