Humans flourished through super volcano 74,000 years ago, study finds

March 14, 2018

Our ancestors not only survived a massive volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago, they flourished during the resulting climate change that occurred, a new study by UNLV geoscientist Eugene Smith and colleagues found.

The conclusions reached by Smith and Arizona State University archeologist Curtis Marean counter previously held beliefs that the eruption of an Indonesian super volcano - called Mount Toba - and the resulting "winter" of ash and smoke spread thousands of miles, destroyed plants, killed animals, and nearly wiped out humans.

The study, "Humans thrived in South Africa through the Toba eruption about 74,000 years ago," was published this week in the journal Nature.

And it all started with a National Geographic vacation and tour to the Republic of South Africa that Smith and his wife took back in 2011.

During the vacation, the couple was touring archeological sites run by Marean, who noticed a skeptical look on Smith's face as he discussed geology.

The two soon spoke, and Marean learned Smith was a geologist and asked him to look at some glassy looking shards that were found in the archeological sites. Smith quickly identified the pieces as cryptotephra, very old microscopic glass shards that were ejected during a volcanic eruption.

The next step was creating a partnership between the two public research universities and to build a lab to study when and where those shards came from.

Smith sent a UNLV graduate student to Oxford University in the United Kingdom to model the lab. Soon after, UNLV developed the Cryptotephra Laboratory for Archaeological and Geological Research, the only U.S. lab specializing in this type of work. The lab analyzed and dated the shards, narrowing down the exact time that all this occurred to inhabitants at two sites -- Pinnacle Point and Vleesbaai in present-day South Africa.

Of course, they first had to find more shards of glass. This is no easy task when you're talking about something less than a one-third the size of a grain of salt.

Smith and a graduate student went to South Africa and collected samples from the Pinnacle Point archaeological site looking for evidence of the Toba super volcano. The shards are both tiny and hard to come by - roughly 1 in every 10,000 grains of sand, he said.

Back in the lab, Smith and UNLV post-doctoral fellow Racheal Johnsen, graduate student Amber Ciravolo, and undergraduate Shelby Fitch studied samples of the glass to trace it to the Toba super volcano.

Armed with a clear timeline, the archeologist Marean was able to show that those human ancestors living at Pinnacle Point and Vleesbaai - located about five miles apart -- showed remarkable improvement in their life style during the volcanic winter caused by the Toba eruption.

"Humans in this region thrived through the Toba event and the ensuing full glacial conditions, perhaps as a combined result of the uniquely rich resource base of the region and fully evolved modern human adaptation," study authors noted.

The Toba eruption - the largest in the past 2 million years -- was so immense, it spewed ash and smoke around the world, including South Africa, some 6,200 miles away.

Still, humans were able to survive and adapt, Smith said.

"This was eight years of work by many people, and I'm immensely proud of my colleagues and our lab at UNLV," Smith said.
-end-


University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Related Volcanic Eruption Articles from Brightsurf:

Large volcanic eruption caused the largest mass extinction
Researchers in Japan, the US and China say they have found more concrete evidence of the volcanic cause of the largest mass extinction of life.

Researchers model source of eruption on Jupiter's moon Europa
A new model shows how brine on Jupiter's moon Europa can migrate within the icy shell to form pockets of salty water that erupt to the surface when freezing.

Using a volcano's eruption 'memory' to forecast dangerous follow-on explosions
Stromboli, the 'lighthouse of the Mediterranean', is known for its low-energy but persistent explosive eruptions, behaviour that is known scientifically as Strombolian activity.

Philippine volcanic eruption could prompt El Niño warming next winter
Climatological models suggest that gases from an erupting Philippine volcano could have significant impact on the global climate if more explosive eruptions occur.

Study suggests rainfall triggered 2018 Kīlauea eruption
In May 2018 KÄ«lauea volcano on the island of Hawaii erupted, touching off months of intense activity.

Tree rings could pin down Thera volcano eruption date
Research led by the University of Arizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research has anchored a long sequence of tree rings, providing context for the civilizations that existed throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages, including the eruption of Thera.

Human Populations survived the Toba volcanic super-eruption 74,000 years ago
In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History's Department of Archaeology, together with international partners, present evidence that Middle Palaeolithic tool-users were present in India before and after the Toba super-eruption 74,000 years ago.

Pre-eruption seismograms recovered for 1980 Mount St. Helens event
Nearly 40 years ago, analog data tapes faithfully recorded intense seismic activity in the two months before the historic eruption of Mount St.

Corals survive to tell the tale of Earth's newest island eruption
Coral reefs on a tiny island in the South Pacific have shown incredible resilience and recovery from a recent but very severe disturbance: a volcanic eruption that created a new island.

New study investigates the role of Tambora eruption in the 1816 'year without a summer'
A new study has estimated for the first time how the eruption of Mount Tambora changed the probability of the cold and wet European 'year without a summer' of 1816.

Read More: Volcanic Eruption News and Volcanic Eruption Current Events
Brightsurf.com 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 Amazon.com.