Early humans survived supervolcano thanks to SA caves
Caves near Mossel Bay have revealed that, despite the Toba catastrophe, early modern humans thrived in SA
After all the fanfare of Little Foot and Homo Naledi, South Africa has once again proven to be a treasure trove of palaeontological discovery for international scientists.
This time, however, it is not caves in the Cradle of Humankind grabbing attention.It is, instead, a site near the coastal town of Mossel Bay where, some 74,000 years ago, early humans are thought to have survived a super-volcano (which erupted in modern-day Indonesia) that devastated the global landscape (including the South African coastline) with a seemingly endless winter.In the process, it wiped out other mass populations around the world with an eruption so massive, according to the researchers, that aerosols shooting right up into the atmosphere could have reduced light by up to 90 %.And after that, came the fallout: “In Indonesia, the source of the destruction would have been evident to terrified witnesses – just before they died. However, as a family of hunter-gatherers in Africa 74,000 years ago, you would have had no clue as to the reason for the sudden and devastating change in the weather. Famine sets in and the very young and old die. Your social groups are devastated, and your society is on the brink of collapse,” says Curtis Marean, associate director of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University and honorary professor at the Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience at Nelson Mandela University, South Africa.
He says the aftermath lasted several years and pushed life to the brink of extinction.“When the column of fire, smoke and debris blasted out the top of Mount Toba, it spewed rock, gas and tiny microscopic pieces of glass … Pumped into the atmosphere, these invisible fragments spread across the world.”Back in the 1990s, scientists began arguing that this eruption of Mount Toba, “the most powerful in the last two million years”, caused a longlived volcanic winter that may have “devastated the ecosystems of the world and caused widespread population crashes”.
But, along the food-rich coastline of our country, resilience was the name of the game, according to the new research.The Toba supervolcano
Lake Toba is believed to be the resulting crater lake left behind after the eruption of the Toba supervolcano that erupted 74,000 years ago. According to the theory, the eruption caused a 10-year-long winter that cooled the Earth.The scientists looked at cultural remains that had been excavated there (what they explain as “the trash ancient humans left at the site”) and which they dated with highly sensitive methods designed especially for the project to prove that despite the challenges, life carried on.
In a paper published this week in Nature, scientists show that early modern humans on this stretch of coast of South Africa thrived through this event – the link to which was recently traced back through one of the tiny volcanic shards that landed there.Coastal resources, like shellfish, are “highly nutritious” and were “less susceptible to the eruption than the plants and animals of inland areas”.
As a result, populations in the region “thrived through this mega-eruption”,
Now other research teams can take the new and advanced methods developed in this study and apply them to sites elsewhere in Africa “to see if this was the only population that made it through these devastating times”.