Did humans in India survive a super-volcano eruption 74,000 years ago?

The magnitude of eruption gave birth to debate on whether the "volcanic winter" wiped the entire human race
Last Updated 27 February 2020, 02:27 IST

Ancient Indians survived one of mankind’s worst catastrophes — the Mount Toba super eruption that literally rocked the world 74,000 years ago.

Archaeologists have dug out stone tools from a site in the Son river valley in Madhya Pradesh bearing telltale signs of continuous human occupation at the site since the last 80,000 years — the strongest evidence so far that the super eruption didn’t wipe off those Stone Age men and women.

The Toba supervolcanic eruption in the Indonesian island of Sumatra is the earth’s largest known volcanic discharge. Many scientists have argued that it caused an extended volcanic winter, disrupting human dispersal out of Africa and the colonisation of Australasia. While its impact on human populations has been debated, the evidence from key regions such as India has been limited.

Now, an international team comprising researchers from Australia, Germany, the UK, India and Canada has unearthed a collection of stone tools in support of the survival theory.

Researchers from the University of Allahabad, Banaras Hindu University and the University of Madras are part of the team that found tools from around 80,000 years ago.

The stone tools consist of a Levallois core assemblage (created by flint knapping) until approximately 48,000 years ago when there was a shift to microlithic technology (the production of smaller stone tools, typically a few centimetres in length).

While substantial deposits of chemically identified remnants of the Toba eruption are found about 700 metres east of Dhaba, at Ghogara, on the northern bank of the Son river and in cliff sections on the east bank of the Rehi river, the ancient Indians continued their lives without much of a problem even after the super eruption.

“The Dhaba localities provide evidence of long-term human occupation spanning nearly the last 80 thousand years. The occupation spans the Toba eruption and the stone tool industry shows no significant change in technology until the introduction of microlithic technology about 48 thousand years ago,” the team reported in Nature Communications on Wednesday.

Way back in 2007, archaeologists had found stone tools in southern India, dated before and after the super eruption. The critics, however, argued that it was not clear whether those tools were made by modern humans or their ape-like forefathers such as Neanderthals.

The continuity in the archaeological record suggests survival of the local population beyond the catastrophic eruption.

The findings also provide insights into the eastward dispersal of our species out of Africa. The similarities between the Levallois tool technology at Dhaba with those found in Arabia between 1,00,000 and 47,000 years ago and in northern Australia 65,000 years ago suggest linkage of these regions by an early modern human dispersal out of Africa.

The lithic industry from Dhaba strongly resembles Middle Stone Age stone tool assemblages from Africa, Arabia and Australia. This is interpreted as the result of dispersal of Homo sapiens as they dispersed eastward out of Africa.

(Published 26 February 2020, 10:17 IST)

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