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How early humans survived the eruption of Toba supervolcano

Approximately 74,000 years ago, the Earth bore witness to the cataclysmic eruption of the Toba supervolcano. The eruption cast a vast pall of ash and debris over the planet. It plunged regions into prolonged darkness and dramatically altering the global climate.

Yet, archaeological evidence from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that early humans not only survived this disaster but may have used it as a catalyst for dispersal out of Africa. This set the stage for the eventual population of the globe.

Life on the Edge of a Supervolcano

In the lush lowlands of modern-day Ethiopia, archaeologists have unearthed a treasure trove of information at the Shinfa-Metema 1 site. This ancient settlement paints a vivid picture of determined Middle Stone Age humans who somehow managed to endure the Toba supereruption.

But what was life like before, during, and after the volcano changed their world?

Resilience towards Toba eruption

The people of Shinfa-Metema 1 embodied incredible resilience. Studying the leftovers from their meals, scientists discovered these early humans weren’t picky eaters.

Their diet shifted with the changing seasons and the ebb and flow of resources. Antelope, monkeys, fish – they skillfully hunted, gathered, and likely cooked whatever they could find. This flexibility in their diet would become crucial for survival.

The presence of tiny volcanic glass shards at the site reveals that the Toba eruption wasn’t the end for these ancient settlers.

Instead, they endured an extended period of even harsher drought brought on by the eruption. Their ingenuity is the key to understanding how they made it through this post-apocalyptic landscape.

Rivers during Toba eruption

Scientists theorize that amidst the challenges, shrinking waterholes and seasonal rivers may have played a surprising role in the dispersal of humans out of Africa.

“As people depleted food in and around a given dry season waterhole, they were likely forced to move to new waterholes,” explained Professor John Kappelman, lead author of the study.

These seasonal waterways acted as natural pathways, guiding groups further and further from home. Ancient bands of people followed rivers in search of food and resources. Unknowingly, they may have charted routes that would, over millennia, lead them across continents.

Study significance

The Shinfa-Metema 1 site has offered up another astonishing discovery: tiny, meticulously crafted triangular stone points that researchers believe are the oldest known arrowheads.

This finding dramatically revises the timeline for the development of tools, like bows and arrows. Imagine the advantage these projectiles would have given those ancient hunters, especially when food became scarce.

They could potentially target smaller, faster prey and become less reliant on dwindling herds of larger animals.

Lessons from the ashes of Toba

While the inhabitants of Shinfa-Metema 1 weren’t likely the direct ancestors of those who ventured outside Africa, their story echoes our own. It highlights crucial traits that allowed humans to spread across the world:

  • Adaptability: They ate what was available and changed their strategies with the changing environment.
  • Resilience: They pushed through extreme challenges, refusing to bow to disaster.
  • Innovation: They developed new technologies like archery to better their chances.

The Toba eruption may have momentarily dimmed the light of human existence, but it couldn’t snuff out the spark within us. Instead, this volcanic cataclysm might have ignited a strange catalyst for our global expansion.

The story of Shinfa-Metema 1 is a testament to humanity’s enduring spirit — a reminder that even in the darkest of times, we can adapt, overcome, and thrive against the odds.

More about supervolcanoes and the Toba eruption

As discussed above, supervolcanoes represent one of the most powerful and potentially devastating natural phenomena on Earth.

Unlike ordinary volcanoes, supervolcanoes have the capability to produce eruptions of magnitude 8 on the Volcano Explosivity Index (VEI), indicating they can eject more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material. These colossal eruptions can have global consequences, affecting climate, ecosystems, and human societies.

Science behind these massive volcanoes

Supervolcanoes operate on a much grander scale than their smaller counterparts. Beneath their surface lies a vast magma chamber, filled with molten rock and gases under immense pressure. When the pressure exceeds the strength of the earth’s crust above, it triggers an eruption.

This eruption can release massive quantities of volcanic ash, gas, and rock into the atmosphere and across the surrounding landscape.

Historical eruptions beyond Toba

The eruption of supervolcanoes is a rare event, but history records several instances that have had profound effects on the planet.

One of the most well-known is the eruption of Toba, as discussed previously in this article, on the island of Sumatra, around 74,000 years ago. This event is believed to have drastically altered the global climate, leading to a volcanic winter that lasted for years and significantly impacted human populations.

Another example is the Yellowstone Caldera, located in the United States. It has experienced three supereruptions over the past 2.1 million years, with the most recent occurring approximately 630,000 years ago.

These events have left behind vast calderas, or large cauldrons, formed by the collapse of land following the eruption.

Global consequences of a supervolcano eruption

The eruption of a supervolcano could lead to catastrophic changes on a global scale. The enormous amounts of ash and sulfur dioxide ejected into the atmosphere can reduce sunlight, lower temperatures worldwide, and disrupt agricultural practices, leading to food shortages.

These climatic changes can persist for years, affecting ecosystems and human populations alike. Given the potential global impact of supervolcano eruptions, scientists closely monitor known supervolcanoes, such as Yellowstone and Toba, for signs of increased activity.

Advances in technology and geology have improved our ability to predict volcanic eruptions, allowing for better preparedness and response strategies.

Efforts to understand and monitor supervolcanoes aim to mitigate the risks associated with their eruptions. While the exact timing of future supereruptions remains uncertain, ongoing research and monitoring are vital in preparing for such a potentially catastrophic event.

In summary, supervolcanoes embody the awe-inspiring and fearsome power of nature. Their eruptions, though rare, can unleash devastation on an unimaginable scale, affecting global climates and the very course of human history. Through continued research, monitoring, and preparedness, humanity strives to understand and mitigate the threats posed by these

The study is published in Nature.


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