Study Challenges Human Toll of Ancient Volcanic Super-Eruption

(CN) – Scientists have long thought a massive volcanic eruption some 74,000 years ago plunged the world into volcanic winter and nearly erased early humanity. New research may suggest otherwise.

One of the most well discussed and hotly debated theories regarding humanity’s early history is known simply as the Toba eruption theory – tens of thousands of years ago a volcanic eruption in what is now Indonesia decimated the population of early Homo sapiens and brought about a global cooling event that lasted nearly a millennium.

An artist’s impression of what the Toba super-eruption some 74,000 years ago might have looked like from the air high above modern-day Sumatra. (Anynobody / CC BY-SA)

The Toba eruption, believed to have been roughly 5,000 times stronger than the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption in Washington state, destroyed virtually all of the human population in Asia, leaving behind only a few human survivors in Africa who would later go on to repopulate Asia thousands of years later. Or so scientists believed.

A study published Tuesday in Nature Communications offers evidence that directly contradicts this theory and suggests the well-discussed devastation of the Toba super-eruption was far less catastrophic than previously thought.

The researchers say discoveries in the form of stone tools and other archaeological evidence at the Dhaba site in India’s Middle Son Valley have helped establish a timeline of human activity around the time of the Toba eruption. Data suggest the tools were constructed by Homo sapiens in Asia both before and after the event that supposedly wiped out nearly of humankind on the continent.

Lead author Chris Clarkson of the University of Queensland says the presence of these tools in the aftermath of the Toba eruption suggest far more early humans survived this explosive event than scientists thought.

“Populations at Dhaba were using stone tools that were similar to the toolkits being used by Homo sapiens in Africa at the same time,” Clarkson said with the release of the study. “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.”

Clarkson and the team believe early humans survived because they adapted. In the aftermath of the Toba explosion, humans found strength by banding together to form hunter-gatherer tribes. These groups were believed to be small and maneuverable, making it easier for them to adapt to the environment recently changed by the volcanic eruption and become more resilient, the researchers say.

This adaptability came at something of a cost, however. While the hunter-gatherer groups survived in the short-term, biological evidence suggests they had little influence on the gene pools of later generations. This, the researchers believe, indicates that at some point their ability to adapt ran out and they were eventually replaced by stronger, more durable humans.

Michael Petraglia, another author of the study and professor at the Max Planck Institute, says that although the team’s research shows how adaptable humans can be in the face of extreme environmental adversity, we are far more vulnerable to changing habitats than we would care to admit.

“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,” Petraglia said with the release of the study.

While this is not the first time the destruction of the Toba eruption has been challenged – some of the authors of Tuesday’s study conducted field research that countered this assumption back in 2007 – researchers hope their new findings will guide the ongoing debate that the Toba eruption was not the unprecedented and apocalyptic event it has been made out to be.

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