Scientists have uncovered how a small band of early modern humans survived the eruption of an apocalyptic supervolcano that nearly wiped out our species 74,000 years ago.
Shards of glass left by the Toba volcano – which plunged Earth into a decade-long volcanic winter – show humans sought shelter along the coast of southern Africa.
These food-rich areas averted the destruction, with the ocean providing a refuge that allowed humans to thrive, researchers found.
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Scientists have uncovered how a small band of early humans survived the eruption of an apocalyptic supervolcano 74,000 years ago. Tiny shards of glass (pictured) left by the Toba volcano show humans sought shelter along the coast of southern Africa
The scientists, from Arizona State University in Tempe, said that while ‘terrestrial’ groups further in-land were hit hard by the supervolcano, those in coastal areas were not.
Study lead author Professor Curtis Marean told MailOnline: ‘These were early modern humans using a hunting and gathering lifestyle.
‘A typical social group would be 20-30 people. Population size is tough to estimate but maybe a few hundred on the coast spread widely.
‘Our analysis shows that human occupation continued through the eruption event, and actually intensified in one region.
‘We suggest terrestrial resources may have been adversely affected by the eruption, while coastal resources were not, making [southern Africa] a coastal refuge.’
The Toba super-eruption was the biggest volcanic blast on Earth within the past 2.5 million years when it blew its top on what is now the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Researchers excavating ancient glass shards from rock in South Africa (pictured) suggest the food-rich areas of the country’s southern coast averted the destruction of the Toba eruption, with the ocean providing a refuge that allowed humans to thrive
The Toba super-eruption (yellow dot, right) spread hot ash around the globe. This solidified into glass as it cooled in the atmosphere (white dots show shard sites of previous studied, sites PP5-6 and VVB show shards found in new study)
The volcano fired out some 720 cubic miles (3,000 cubic km) of rock and ash which spread across the globe, bringing with it a volcanic winter that lasted a decade.
Toba’s eruption 74,000 years ago devastated life on Earth because its thick cloud of ash blocked out the sun, killing off much of the planet’s plantlife.
To investigate how the event affected humans, the Arizona State researchers studied two early archaeological sites on South Africa’s southern coast.
The team found that sediments at two sites contain microscopic glass deposits left by an ancient volcanic eruption
The sites, Vleesbaai and Pinnacle Point, have been dated to the time of the Toba eruption and represent an open-air activity site and a home-base rock shelter respectively.
Professor Marean told MailOnline: ‘Rockshelters and caves are sites where people slept, cooked their meals, and told stories around the fire. They are their home.
‘Open air sites are where they collected plant foods, killed animals, and found raw materials to make their tools. We want to see both ends of their lifeways.’
The team found that sediments at both sites contain microscopic glass deposits left by an ancient volcanic eruption.
The team found that sediments at both sites contain microscopic glass deposits left by Toba. They used laser beam-based analysis to measure their chemical signatures. Glass shards from Mount Toba were discovered at the PP5-6 location (pictured)
They used laser beam-based analysis to measure their chemical signature, finding that the so-called ‘cryptotephra’ shards were created in the Toba eruption.
This is the first time such deposits have been successfully identified so far from their source volcano, in this case 5,600 miles (9,000 km) away.
By matching the shards with archaeological evidence of humans activity in different areas, the researchers were able to assess how the eruption affected early man.
This is the first time such deposits have been successfully identified so far from their source volcano, in this case 5,600 miles (9,000 km) away (stock image)
At the Pinnacle Point rock shelter, the appearance of the shards in the sediment record accompanies an increase in the intensity of human occupation.
This was measured by the findings of bones, complex stone tools and evidence of human fires.
In the second site, humans did not appear to thrive, but did not decline after the event either, the researchers found.
Two archaeological sites in South Africa, Vleesbaai and Pinnacle Point, have been dated to the time of the Toba eruption and represent an open-air activity site and a home-base rock shelter respectively
The study shows that along the food-rich coastline of southern Africa, people thrived through Toba’s mega-eruption, perhaps because of the coastline’s rich food regime.
Professor Marean told MailOnline: ‘The rich coastal resources would be less susceptible to destruction from this event.
‘It is very possible that the sea provided a refuge.’
The team hopes other research teams will apply their methods to sites elsewhere in Africa so researchers can see if this was the only population that made it through the devastating volcanic event.