Toba eruption: a hindrance or a spur to humans?
Ash-fall blanket at Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines. (credit: Wikipedia)
The eruption that created the 100 by 30 km Toba caldera 74 ka ago was the largest recorded volcanic event during the two million years of the genus Homo’s evolution. It ejected an estimated 800 cubic kilometres of ash to blanket the land surface thousands of kilometres away. By analogy with the known effects of stratospheric ash and sulfate aerosols from the much smaller 1991 eruption of the Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which reduced mean global temperature by 0.5 °C, Toba might be expected to have had an even larger cooling effect, perhaps by as much as 10° C. Such a scenario has led palaeoanthropologists to suggest that there would have been major effects on humans migrating across Eurasia at the time, such as dramatic population reduction and maybe a genetic ‘bottleneck’ that could have led to rapid evolution among surviving generations. Yet, not only are stone tools found below the Toba Ash in Sumatra, but also in South India and immediately above it too. Yet analysis of Toba’s environmental effects recorded by sediments on the bed of Lake Malawi in southern African reveal little if any sign of a global ‘volcanic winter’.
A letter in Nature, published online on 15 March 2018 (Smith, E.J. and 15 others 2018. Humans thrived in South Africa through the Toba eruption about 74,000 years ago. Nature, v. 555; doi:10.1038/nature25967) decisively refutes any retardation of human cultural progress, in southern Africa at least, and suggests the opposite. Smith and colleagues from South Africa, Australia and the US found ash dated at around 74 ka 9,000 km away from Toba in sedimentary sequences that contain anatomically modern human remains and artefacts at the coastal Vleesbaai and Pinnacle Point sites in Cape Province South Africa. To check on the likelihood of a fortuitous coincidence of another eruption having shed the ash, the team compared detailed geochemical analyses of ash samples with those from other volcanoes and bona fide Toba samples, with a clear confirmation of provenance. In the archaeological record, rather than any sign of a cultural setback, the intensity of use of the sites increased after the ash-fall event, accompanied by significant technological innovations. Perhaps the Pinnacle Point community was lucky and also responded in the spirit of the adage ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Discovery of the Toba ash at other ancient human sites would resolve the issue.
Hominin cultural revolution 320,000 years ago
As regards stone tools, the Olorgesailie Basin in southern Kenya is about as good as it gets; a long-used ‘factory’ that covers a time span from about 1. 2 to 0.03 Ma. In places, large areas of the surface underlain by sedimentary strata, some of which have become major tourist attractions, are liberally strewn with tools and debitage from their manufacture. The area is ideal for stone-tool makers: being within the East African Rift it contains outcrops of many hard, fine-grained volcanic rocks and cherts formed by hot springs interleaved with its dominant fill of lake and riverine sediments. There are two dominant sedimentary units: the Olorgesailie Formation (1.2 to 0.49 Ma) overlain by the Oltulelei Formation (0.32 to 0.05 Ma), the time gap between the two marking an extended period of regional erosion. Despite the rich tool assemblages, hominin remains have yet to be unearthed from the sediments, although there are plenty of bones from potential prey mammals. Olorgesailie was good place to live, especially as the Rift would have channelled migrating herds predictably between its steep-sided flanks.
The older formation has yielded biface tools of the Acheulean technology from bottom to top. The earliest Acheulean tools in Africa date back to about 1.7 Ma and have been attributed to Homo ergaster/erectus, although examples in Europe are associated with H. antecessor and H. heidelbergensis – the technology was active for about 1.4 Ma. The Acheulean method involved striking flakes from large blocks of rock to result in a symmetrical, pear-shaped core that served as a multipurpose tool. The oldest strata in the Oltulelei Formation contain exclusively tools that are very different , having been made by a significantly more complicated procedure and covering a wide variety of designs with different uses. This Levallois technique focused on thin flakes produced from cores after careful preparation, which enabled similar tools to be made repeatedly rather than relying on chance fracturing. Precise dating of the oldest of these assemblages gives an age of 320 ka (Deino, A.L. et al. 2018. Chronology of the Acheulean to Middle Stone Age* transition in eastern Africa. Science, v. 359 online; DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2216). The makers clearly were able to visualize the finished product within the original lump of raw stone, but in a more nuanced way than did the makers of Acheulean biface tools. The first-described Levallois tools were associated with European Neanderthals.
Producing a flake by the Levallois technique (credit: Wikipedia)
Sometime in the 500 to 320 ka interval removed by erosion a major shift in technology and almost certainly cognition took place. Not only was this a technological revolution, but the Levallois tools are found in association with a variety of pigments, such as ochres, which show signs of having been worked, presumably for decoration of some kind. Also, the tool makers seemed to have a clear preference for specific rocks – black, glassy obsidian and cherts of white and green hues from sources 25 to 90 km from the tool-making sites (Brooks, A.S. and 14 others 2018. Long-distance stone transport and pigment use in the earliest Middle Stone Age. Science, v. 359 online; DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2646). The sheer volume of tools at each site and the evidence for long-distance transport of the raw materials have prompted the authors to hazard a guess at some kind of trade, or at least cooperative intergroup interaction. Together with the use of pigment, probably for body ornamentation, this suggests individual and perhaps group identity within a kind of social network.
Of course, the big question is: Who made the leap? That’s a hard one in the absence of human remains associated with the tool-making factories at Olorgesailie . The authors of both papers argue for the earliest modern humans. But, to me, this seems like an assumption based on the age of the transition rather than any convincing evidence. The original Levallois tools from northern France were found in association with skeletal remains of Neanderthals but much later in the Pleistocene. An age of 320 ka does place the Olorgesailie tools in the same ballpark as early AMH fossils from Morocco, later than the genetically derived date of separation of Neanderthals and AMH. However, the 180 ka time gap in which the technological revolution took place gives some room for so-called African ‘archaic modern humans’ (not subdivided as are similar fossils from Europe) are known from Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Ethiopia. If the Neanderthals were using the Levallois technique in Europe there is every reason to suspect that they, or their possible forebears H. heidelbergensis, may have brought it with them from Africa.
The Olorgesailie tools figure in a third paper in the same volume of Science, but one with less shaky grounds (Potts, R. and 14 others 2018. Environmental dynamics during the onset of the Middle Stone Age in eastern Africa. Science, v. 359 online; DOI: 10.1126/science.aao2200). The wet-dry cycle of the Pleistocene, related to global warming and cooling in interglacial and glacial episodes respectively, had become more marked after the 500 to 320 ka period of tectonically induced erosion. In itself, this would have resulted in more marked shifts in the ecosystems of the basin – perhaps a case of necessity being the mother of invention. Yet, the evidence base for changing climate cycles in Africa is not from local lake-sediment stratigraphy, micropalaeontology or geochemistry, but from the modelled variation of insolation based on Milankovich’s hypothesis.
*Note: The Middle Stone Age in Africa does not correlate with the Mesolithic of Europe, but is a legacy of the development of archaeology in Africa. It corresponds to the European Middle Palaeolithic.
See also: Gibbons, A. Complex behaviour arose at dawn of humans. Science, v. 359, p. 1201-1202 (with video)