Volcanic Super-Eruption Didn’t Scare Away Humans 74,000 Years Ago
New insight has emerged on our species’ eastward dispersal out of Africa thanks to a study published in Nature Communications this week. The paper focuses on stone tools found at a site in the Son River Valley in Madhya Pradesh, India which suggest the site was occupied continuously for at least 80,000 years – despite the volcanic super-eruption of Mount Toba around 74,000 years ago.
The excavation site. Credit: Christina Nuedorf
Chris Clarkson and his colleagues made their conclusions about the presence of Homo sapiens at the critical crossroads from Africa into Asia and Oceania based on a large collection of stone artifacts unearthed at Dhaba in the Middle Son River Valley of India. Stone tool manufacturing ranged from flint-knapped Levallois core assemblage dating to approximately 80,000 years ago to much smaller centimeters-long microlithic technology about 48,000 years ago. This new study contradicts a 2013 study that claimed that modern humans didn’t live in Asia prior to the volcanic eruption in Sumatra 74,000 years ago.
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Similarities have also been found between the Levallois tool technology at Dhaba and stone tools from 100,000 and 47,000 years ago in what is now Arabia and 65,000 years ago in the modern lands of northern Australia. The researchers believe that these similarities suggest a link between the regions with an early modern human dispersal out of Africa. “The lithic industry from Dhaba strongly resembles Middle Stone Age stone tool assemblages from Africa, Arabia and Australia, here interpreted as the product of Homo sapiens as they dispersed eastward out of Africa,” the authors explain in their paper.
Key artifact types at Dhaba from 80 to 25 ka. a –c Levallois flakes. d, e Levallois blades. f, g Ochre. h, i Microblade cores. j Notched scraper. k–m Levallois points. n, o Agate and chert microblades. p–s Recurrent Levallois cores. t, u Backed microliths. White arrows indicate scar directions. Black arrows with circles indicate impact points. (Clarkson et al.)
Surviving a Volcanic Super-Eruption
But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the artifacts is that their presence suggests local populations were able to survive the Mount Toba eruption.
Before these findings, it was believed that the catastrophe of Mount Toba in Sumatra, Indonesia caused a disruption in the migration of humans out of Africa and into Australasia. This was thought to have been due to an extended volcanic winter that resulted from the eruption. A lack of archaeological evidence seemed to support this hypothesis – “the reality is that very few sites in India are dated to the crucial time period between 80 and 50 ka,” the paper reports.
However, as the authors write in their report “While the Indian fossil hominin record is non-existent for this key time period, analysis of mitochondrial DNA of contemporary populations of India indicates that the region was an important geographic stepping stone in the colonisation of Australasia by Homo sapiens.”
If people remained in the area following the super-eruption, life may have been extremely difficult. As Ancient Origins has previously reported :
“The volcanic eruption was the largest eruption to have taken place in the last 2 million years, covering India, Pakistan and the Gulf region in a blanket of ash up to 5 metres deep […] It is the most accurately dated, dramatic event to have taken place before the last ice age and it is therefore extremely useful to archaeologists as a time datum for the whole of southern Asia.”
Despite the destruction, the new research suggests people were still occupying the Middle Son River Valley and discarding tools behind them.
Microlithic blade cores from Dhaba. 1. Agate pebble microblade core with three microblade scars; 2. bidirectional core; 3. limestone unidirectional microblade core; 4. bidirectional microblade core with faceted platform from the surface of the site; 5. agate unidirectional microblade core; 6-7. chert bidirectional microblade cores with faceted platforms. (Clarkson et al.)
The Toba Catastrophe Theory
Since as far back as 1993 scientists have been debating the impact of the volcanic super-eruption at Mount Toba. Proponents of the cataclysmic results of the eruption follow the Toba catastrophe theory, which suggests that it caused six to 10 years of a global volcanic winter and possibly even 1000 years of cooler temperatures around the planet. Many of the supporters of this theory also believe that the natural disaster resulted in a population bottleneck.
Even before this study, other researchers have questioned the validity of the Toba catastrophe theory. For example a 2018 article in the Journal of Human Evolution states that the researchers found “no support for the Toba catastrophe hypothesis and conclude that the Toba supereruption did not 1) produce a 6-year-long volcanic winter in eastern Africa, 2) cause a genetic bottleneck among African AMH populations, or 3) bring humanity to the brink of extinction.”
Illustration of what the Toba eruption might have looked like around 42 km (26.10 miles) above northern Sumatra. (Anynobody/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Other Volcanic Super-Eruptions
The earth has been shaken by countless volcanic eruptions throughout the ages. For example, Liz Leafloor discusses the following natural disasters:
“26,500 years ago the Oruanui eruption covered the central North Island in lava and ash 200 meters (650 feet) deep. The Taupo or Hatepe eruption of 180 CE caused an eruption column 50 kilometers (31 miles) high, and the skies of Rome and China turned red from the fire and ash in the sky.”
Leafloor also recounts the destruction of Kamchatka, which includes “active volcanoes form[ing] a 700 kilometer long volcanic belt […] the 30 eruptions over the last 10,000 years have spewed 1 cubic kilometer of magma.”
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And of course no list would be complete without the harrowing tale of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. Sarah P Young describes the eruption:
“On the morning of August 24th, one thousand years of magma was released from the volcano with a thunderous explosion. Residents would have seen an impressive display of fire and smoke but were not immediately alarmed. It was only after a second and far larger explosion several hours later that the dire nature of the situation became apparent. Scientists have calculated the power of the explosion as 100,000 times more powerful than the nuclear bomb which obliterated Hiroshima. As the residents of Pompeii began to flee for shelter, ash began to float down on them, settling over everything and quickly building up by several centimeters.
As the day went on, the ash continued to fall. The city was entombed in meters of the debris and the roofs of buildings began to collapse under its weight. Those who had not been able to escape sought shelter anywhere they thought they may be protected – near walls or huddled together with loved ones under stairs.”
One of the most unsettling aspects of the Mount Vesuvius story is that 3 million people now reside in the area around the volcano, which is believed to be overdue for an explosion.
Top Image: Representation of a volcanic super eruption. Source: Romolo Tavani /Adobe Stock