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People thrived despite supervolcano eruption 74,000 years ago: study

excavations at Vleesbaai that are being conducting right now, looking toward Pinnacle Point where PP5-6 is located.
Excavation at the study site in Vleesbaai, South Africa. Photo: Curtis W. Marean/Institute of Human Origins

Archaeologists say they've made a discovery that suggests humans were able to thrive 74,000 years ago despite the largest supervolcano to erupt in the past 2 million years, in a study published in Nature Monday.

"We found the shards in a rock shelter where people lived and cooked their food and slept, but also at an open air site where they were collecting raw materials and making tools. Thus we can say with great confidence that we see two ends of the daily lives of the same social group.  This is a Holy Grail result for geochronology."
— Curtis Marean, study author from Arizona State University, tells Axios

Yes, but: There continues to be some controversy about both the overall climate impact of the Toba supervolcano on Sumatra, Indonesia, and what these discoveries of volcanic shards 5,600 miles away in South Africa mean.

The ongoing argument: Over the past couple decades, there has been scientific debate about the overall impact of the eruption — with some saying it had radically changed the world's climate by blocking out the sun for decades. According to one theory, the event drastically lowered the temperature, killing large numbers of people and limiting the overall gene pool, as NPR explains.

Others argued that Earth had already shown signs of cooling before the eruption and doubt the volcano's effect was so bad that it reached Africa and other nations. “I personally lean toward the idea that Toba just didn’t have sufficient impact to have a significant impact on Homo sapiens in East Africa, period,” Thomas Johnson, a retired paleoclimatologist at the University of Minnesota, told the New York Times.

What they found: In this study, scientists found the type of volcanic debris that would have come from the supervolcano 5,600 miles away from the Toba, showing the reach of the eruption. They found similar shards of material in two archeological sites that were roughly 5 miles apart from each other. Because there were other artifacts found in layers above and below those shards, the researchers say this shows the hominid civilization was thriving along the coastal regions of South Africa.

On the other hand, Marean adds that this does not necessarily disprove the Toba catastrophic theory. "No, it just shows that one population survived here."

Other perspectives: University of Adelaide's Martin Williams, who was not part of this study, says this study offers two key items: finding the Toba ash shards, which is "a major achievement," and offering a more precise chronology through their technology. However, he tells Axios:

"Flourishing is a loaded expression. People were there, before, after, they may or may not have experiences some impact. Impossible to say until the environment in this area is reconstructed from many different proxies and dated with precision."

More: Paleoanthropologist John Hawks, who was not part of the study, tweeted how "amazing" it was that they located these microscopic glass shards and how it expands our knowledge of human evolution.