Thursday, February 27, 2020

Surviving the Toba Super-Eruption 74,000 Years Ago

New archaeological work supports the hypothesis that human populations were present in India by 80,000 years ago and that they survived one of the largest volcanic eruptions in the last two million years

Remains of the Toba volcano eruption seen in satellite image of Lake Toba
File:Toba overview.jpg
Credit: NASA / Wikimedia Commons

In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers from the Department of Archeology at the Max Planck Institute for Human History, together with international partners, provide evidence that before and after the super eruption of the Toba volcano in India 74,000 years ago, users of Middle Paleolithic stone tools in India were present. The results support the assumption that Homo sapiens had reached South Asia even before the great waves of expansion of humans 60,000 years ago and that human population groups survived climatic and ecological changes there.

The Toba super eruption on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, was one of the most violent volcanic events of the past two million years, about 5,000 times larger than the eruption of Mount St. Helen in the 1980s. This eruption occurred 74,000 years ago. Long-standing theories claim that it caused a "volcanic winter" of six to ten years that led to a 1,000-year cooling of the earth's surface and major catastrophes, including the decimation of Asian hominin and mammalian populations and the almost complete eradication of our own Species. The few surviving Homo sapiens are said to have survived in Africa through the development of sophisticated social, symbolic and economic strategies. These strategies, so the assumption

Field research in southern India conducted by some of the authors of this study in 2007 questioned these theories and sparked major debates in archeology, genetics, and geosciences on the timing of modern humans' spread beyond Africa and the effects of the Toba Super Eruption on climate and the environment. The current study continues this debate and provides evidence that Homo sapiens was present in Asia earlier and that the Toba supereruption was less apocalyptic than previously thought.

The Toba volcano eruption and human evolution

The current study reports on a unique, 80,000-year stratigraphic record from the archaeological site of Dhaba in the Middle Son Valley in northern India. Middle Paleolithic stone tools found in Dhaba provide strong evidence that there were human populations using tools in India before and after the Toba eruption 74,000 years ago. Professor JN Pal, senior researcher at the University of Allahabad in India, notes that "although the Toba ash in the Son Valley was first identified in the 1980s, we have had no relevant archaeological evidence so far, so the archaeological finds from Dhaba to fill a large gap in time. "

View over the Middle Son valley in the north of India from the archaeological site Dhaba. The archaeological excavation can be seen on the left side of the picture.

Credit: © Christina Neudorf

Professor Chris Clarkson of the University of Queensland, lead author of the study, added: "The stone tools used in Dhaba are similar to the tool sets used at the same time by Homo sapiens were used in Africa. The fact that these tool sets neither disappeared at the time of the Toba super outbreak, nor changed significantly shortly afterwards, indicates that the human population survived the so-called catastrophe and continued to create tools for changing their environment. "This new archaeological evidence underpins fossil fuels Evidence suggests that humans emigrated from Africa earlier than 60,000 years ago and spread across Eurasia, and it is in line with genetic evidence that humans crossed archaic hominin species like the Neanderthals more than 60,000 years ago ,

Stone tools from the Dhaba archaeological site. They were found in the layer that corresponds to the eruption of the Toba volcano. The molds typical of the Middle Paleolithic are shown here.

Credit: © Chris Clarkson

Toba, climate change and human resilience

Although the Toba super eruption was a gigantic event, only a few climatologists and geoscientists continue to represent the previously formulated scenario of a "volcanic winter". This suggests that the cooling of the earth was less serious and that the Toba eruption may not have caused the subsequent cold period. Recent archaeological research in Asia, including the findings reported by this study, does not support the belief that the hominin populations died out due to the Toba Super Outbreak.

Instead, archaeological evidence suggests that the human population in the region survived and coped with one of the most violent volcanic events in human history. This proves that small groups of hunters and gatherers were able to adapt to environmental changes. Nevertheless, the population groups that lived in the region around Dhaba more than 74,000 years ago do not seem to have contributed significantly to the gene pool of today's population groups. It is likely that these hunters and gatherers faced a number of challenges for their long-term survival, including the dramatic environmental changes that followed over the millennia.

Contacts and sources:
Michael PetragliaMax Planck Institute for Human History

Publication:  Human occupation of northern India spans the Toba super-eruption ~ 74,000 years ago
Chris Clarkson, Clair Harris, Bo Li, Christina M. Neudorf, Richard G. Roberts, Christine Lane, Kasih Norman, Jagannath Pal, Sacha Jones, Ceri Shipton, Jinu Koshy, MC Gupta, DP Mishra, AK Dubey, Nicole Boivin, and Michael Petraglia

Nature Communications

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