Depending on when fully modern humans left Africa – and that itself depends on evidence that is at odds with any definite resolution – the forebears of the eventual colonisers of the rest of the world may, or may not, have had to survive the effects of the biggest volcanic eruption of the past 2 million years. Around 74 ka the huge, elliptical caldera lake at Toba in Sumatra was formed by a stupendous eruption that threw out 800 km3 of ash (see Ash Wednesday to put this in perspective with recent events). Toba deposited a 15-centimetre ash layer over the entire Indian subcontinent. Toba has taken on a near iconic status among some palaeoanthropologists as a possible means of reducing the entire human population to a mere few thousand: a genetic ‘bottleneck’ that could have led to rapid evolution among surviving generations that shaped such things as language and culture. Unsurprisingly major efforts are underway to get hard facts about the relationship of fully modern humans to the Toba event, a lot of the work-in-progress being outlined at toba.arch.ox.ac.uk/index.htm.
See also: Balter, M. 2010. Of two minds about Toba’s impact. Science, v. 327, p. 1187-1188.