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Human populations ‘survived Toba volcanic super-eruption 74,000 years ago’

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It has long been thought this was followed by a ‘volcanic winter’ lasting six to 10 years.

More human populations survived the Toba volcanic super-eruption – one of the largest eruptions in the last two million years – than previously thought, new research suggests.

The event, which occurred 74,000 years ago on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia, was about 5,000 times larger than the Mount St Helens eruption in the 1980s.

It has long been thought this was followed by a “volcanic winter” lasting six to 10 years, leading to a 1,000 year-long cooling of the Earth’s surface.

Theories suggested the eruption would have led to major catastrophes, including the decimation of hominin populations and mammal populations in Asia, and the near extinction of our own species.

Stone tools found at the Dhaba site corresponding with the Toba volcanic super-eruption levels (Chris Clarkson/PA)

Today, only one species of this group remains – Homo sapiens, to which everyone on Earth belongs.

After the eruption, the few surviving Homo sapiens in Africa were believed to have survived by developing sophisticated social, symbolic and economic strategies that enabled them to eventually re-expand and populate Asia 60,000 years ago.

The new study, published in Nature Communications, suggests Homo sapiens were present in Asia earlier than expected and that the Toba super-eruption was not as apocalyptic as first believed.

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It describes a unique 80,000 year-long record of rock layers from the Dhaba site in northern India’s Middle Son Valley.

Stone tools uncovered at Dhaba in association with the timing of the Toba event indicate that Middle Palaeolithic tool-using populations were present in India prior to and after 74,000 years ago.

Professor Jagannath Pal, principal investigator from the University of Allahabad in India, said: “Although Toba ash was first identified in the Son Valley back in the 1980s, until now we did not have associated archaeological evidence, so the Dhaba site fills in a major chronological gap.”

Lead author Professor Chris Clarkson of the University of Queensland added: “Populations at Dhaba were using stone tools that were similar to the toolkits being used by Homo sapiens in Africa at the same time.

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“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.”

Researchers say their findings support fossil evidence that humans migrated out of Africa and expanded across Eurasia before 60,000 years ago.

It also supports genetic findings that humans interbred with archaic species of hominins, such as Neanderthals, before 60,000 years ago.

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