How Ancient Humans Thrived During a Supervolcano Apocalypse

Monday, 12 March 2018 - 3:18PM
Monday, 12 March 2018 - 3:18PM
How Ancient Humans Thrived During a Supervolcano Apocalypse
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Image credit: YouTube
Seventy-four thousand years ago, humanity was on the brink of destruction.

A supervolcanic eruption, the biggest in two million years, spewed huge clouds of ash and dust into the atmosphere, darkening the sun, cooling the planet, and choking the life out of plants and animals alike. During this period, it's believed that the human population was effectively bottlenecked, as it dropped from around 100,000 people to just 10,000 living souls.

At least, that's been the prevailing theory up to this point. New research suggests that some humans weren't all that negatively affected by the volcanic eruption—in fact, they thrived, sitting on a warm beach and enjoying tasty seafood.

The evidence for this new study, which has been published in Nature, comes from an archeological dig in South Africa. Bone fragments, stone tools, and other cultural trinkets found in South Africa line up with those from Indonesia at the time of what is known as the Toba eruption.

While the remains of the humans closest to the volcano show significant signs of tragedy, loss, and hardship, it seems like the South African humans were having a great time, as their numbers grew during a period that scientists had previously thought had been six to ten years of intense, rapid death and destruction.

There are two prevailing factors that scientists theorize played a part in these humans' relatively comfortable quality of life.

First, the humans were both lucky and smart enough to find a place that was relatively unaffected by the volcano's eruption. Beach living makes sense during one of these events, as food sources within the ocean will tend to cope fairly well with volcanic ash in the sky above them. Fish don't really need a clear sky so long as the volcano isn't overly poisoning the water.

Second, it's important to note that this study may have uncovered a fascinating new piece of information about the Toba earthquake which challenges the way it's previously been thought of by scientists. For South African humans to endure the volcanic apocalypse with so few signs of struggle, it's entirely possible that what was previously thought of as a massive global tragedy was in fact far more localized in its area of influence.

According to the study:

Opening quote
"We find no support for the Toba catastrophe hypothesis and conclude that the Toba supereruption did not produce a six-year-long volcanic winter in eastern Africa, cause a genetic bottleneck among African [anatomically modern human, i.e. Homo sapien] populations, or bring humanity to the brink of extinction."
Closing quote

This is a big change to the way the Toba event has previously been considered. Scientists had thought that the volcanic eruption was a lot worse and that we are all lucky that any humans anywhere on the planet managed to survive extinction. If this new study can be believed, humans managed to get by just fine, and the entire eruption might not have been too terrible after all.

Either way, this is a fun example of two different branches of science that are learning from sharing ideas and research. The question of a volcano's strength should be the domain of geologists, but in this case the answers are coming from archeologists instead.

With luck, as students of these two disciplines work together in the coming years, we'll be able to build up a better picture of what went down 74,000 years ago.
Science News