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Illustration of what the eruption might have looked like from approximately 50 miles (80 km) above Pulau Simeulue.

The Toba supereruption (Young Toba Tuff or simply YTT[1]) occurred between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago at Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia), and it is recognized as one of Earth's largest known eruptions. The related catastrophe theory holds that this supervolcanic event plunged the planet into a 6 to 10 year volcanic winter, which resulted in the world's human population being reduced to 10,000 or even a mere 1,000 breeding pairs, creating a bottleneck in human evolution. Some researchers argue that the Toba eruption produced not only a catastrophic volcanic winter but also an additional 1,000 year cooling episode.

The Toba event is the most closely studied supereruption. In 1993, Michael R. Rampino of the New York University and Stephen Self of the University of Hawaii at Manoa first suggested a link between the eruption and a bottleneck in human evolution. The theory was then developed in 1998 by Stanley H. Ambrose of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.



The Toba eruption or Toba event[1] occurred at what is now Lake Toba about 73,500 years (± 3,000 years)[2] or 73,000 (± 4,000 years)[3] ago. The Toba eruption was the latest of the three major eruptions which occurred at Toba in the last 1 million years.[4] The last eruption had an estimated Volcanic Explosivity Index of 8 (described as "mega-colossal"), or magnitude ≥ M8; it thus made a sizeable contribution to the 100 X 30 km caldera complex.[5] Dense-rock equivalent estimated of eruptive volume for the eruption vary between 2,000 km3 and 3,000 km3, but the most frequently quoted DRE is ~2,800 km3 (7 X 10km18g) of erupted magma, of which 800 km3 was deposited as ash fall.[6] It was two orders of magnitude greater in erupted mass than the largest volcanic eruption in historic times, in 1815 at Mount Tambora in Indonesia, which made 1816 the "Year Without a Summer" in the northern hemisphere.[7]

Although the eruption took place in Indonesia, it deposited an ash layer approximately 15 centimetres thick over the entire Indian subcontinent. A blanket of volcanic ash was also deposited over the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian and South China Sea.[8] Studies, based on deep-sea cores retrieved from the South China Sea, recently extended the known distribution of the eruption, and suggest that the ~2,800 km3 calculation of the eruption magnitude is a minimum value or even an under-estimate.[9]

Volcanic winter and cooling

The apparent coincidence of the eruption with the onset of the last glacial period attracted the scientists' interest. Michael L. Rampino and Stephen Self argued that the eruption caused a "brief, dramatic cooling or 'volcanic winter'", which resulted in a global mean surface temperature drop of 3–5°C and accelerated the glacial transition from warm to cold temperatures of the last glacial cycle.[10] Zielinski showed Greenland ice core evidence for a 1000-year cool period with low δ18O and increased dust deposition immediately following the eruption. He further suggested that this 1000-year cool period (stadial) could have been caused by the eruption, and that the longevity of the Toba stratospheric loading may account at least for the first two centuries of the cooling episode.[11] Rampino and Self believe that global cooling was already underway at the time of the eruption, but the procedure was extremely slow; YTT "may have provided the extra 'kick' that caused the climate system to switch from warm to cold states."[12] Oppenheimer discounts the arguments that the eruption triggered the last glaciation,[13] but he accepts that it may have been responsible for a millennium of cool climate prior to Dansgaard-Oeschger event 19.[14]

According to Alan Robock,[15] the Toba incident did not initiate an ice age. Using an emission of 6,000 million tons of sulfur dioxide, the simulations demonstrated a maximum global cooling of around 15 °C, approximately 3 years after the eruption. As the saturated adiabatic lapse rate is 4.9 °C/ 1,000 m for temperatures above freezing,[16] this means that the tree line and the snow line were around 3,000 m (9,000 ft) lower at this time. Nevertheless, the climate recovered over a few decades. Robock found no evidence that the 1000-year cold period seen in Greenland ice core records was directly generated by the Toba eruption. Nevertheless, he argues that the volcanic winter would have been colder and longer-lasting than Ambrose assumed, which strengthens his argument for a genetic bottleneck. Contrary to Robock, Oppenheimer believes that estimates of a surface temperature drop of 3–5°C after the eruption are probably too high; a figure closer to 1°C appears more realistic.[17] Robock criticized Oppenheimer's analysis, arguing that it is based on simplistic T-forcing relationships.[15]

Despite the different approaches and estimates, scientists agree that a supereruption like the one of Lake Toba must have led to very extensive ash-fall layers and injection of noxious gases into the atmosphere, having severe worldwide effects on climate and weather.[18] Additionally, the Greenland ice core data display an abrupt climate change around this time,[19] but there is no consensus that the eruption directly generated the 1000-year cold period seen in Greenland or triggered the last glaciation.[20]

Genetic bottleneck theory

Ann Gibbons, in an article in October 1993, discussed a bottleneck in human evolution in the period before about 50,000 years ago, and a possible link to the Toba eruption. Commenting on the article, Rampino & Self confirmed the possibility of a possibly unique Late Pleistocene bottleneck in human evolution. The bottleneck theory was then further developed by Ambrose in 1998 and Rampino & Ambrose in 2000, who invoked the Toba eruption to explain a severe culling of the human population.[21]

According to the supporters of the genetic bottleneck theory, between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago human population suffered a severe population decrease—only 3,000 to 10,000 individuals survived—, followed eventually by rapid population increase, innovation progress and migration.[22] Several geneticists, including Lynn Jorde and Henry Harpending have proposed that the human race was reduced to approximately five to ten thousand people.[23]. Genetic evidence suggests that all humans alive today, despite apparent variety, are descended from a very small population, perhaps between 1,000 to 10,000 breeding pairs about 70,000 years ago.[24][25]

Ambrose and Rampino proposed in late 90s that this bottleneck could have been caused by the climate effects of the Toba eruption. The supporters of the Toba catastrophe theory suggest that the eruption resulted in a global ecological disaster with extreme phenomena, such as worldwide vegetation destruction, and severe drought in the tropical rainforest belt and in monsoonal regions. Τhis massive environmental change created population bottlenecks in species that existed at the time, including hominids;[26] this in turn accelerated differentiation of the reduced human population. Therefore, Toba may have caused modern races to differentiate abruptly only 70,000 years ago, rather than gradually over one million years.[24] Robock believes that, indeed, a 10-year volcanic winter triggered by YTT could have largely destroyed the food supplies of humans and therefore caused a significant reduction in population sizes.[15]

Lake Toba is the resulting crater lake.

Gene analysis of some genes shows divergence anywhere from 60,000 to 2 million years ago. This does not contradict the Toba theory, however, because Toba is not conjectured to be an extreme bottleneck event. The complete picture of gene lineages, including present-day levels of human genetic variation, allows the theory of a Toba-induced human population bottleneck.[27]

However, research by archaeologist Michael Petraglia's team cast doubt on Ambrose's theory. Petraglia and his team found stone tools at southern India, above and below a thick layer of ash from the Toba eruption. The tools from each layer were remarkably similar, and Petraglia says that this shows that the huge dust clouds from the eruption didn’t wipe out the local population of people:[28]

"Whoever was there seems to have persisted through the eruption."

A 2009 study by Martin A.J. Williams's team challenges Petraglia's findings. Williams analysed pollen from a marine core in the Bay of Bengal with stratified Toba ash, and argued that the eruption caused prolonged deforestation in South Asia. Ambrose who is a co-author of the study calls the evidence "unambiguous", and further argues that YTT may have forced our ancestors to adopt new survival strategies, which permitted them to replace Neanderthals and "other archaic human species".[29][30] However, both Neanderthals in Europe and the small-brained Homo floresiensis in Southeastern Asia survived YTT by 50,000 and 60,000 years respectively.[31]

Oppenheimer accepts that the arguments proposed by Rampino and Ambrose are plausible, but they are not yet compelling for two reasons: it is difficult to estimate the global and regional climatic impacts of the eruption, and, at the same time, we cannot conclude with any confidence that the eruption actually preceded the bottleneck.[32] Furthermore, a 2010 geneticists' study seems to question the foundations of the Toba bottleneck theory: analysis of Alu sequences across the entire human genome has shown that the effective human population was already less than 26,000 as far back as 1.2 million years ago, suggesting that no Toba bottleneck was necessary. Possible explanations for the low population size of human ancestors may include repeated population bottlenecks or periodic replacement events from competing Homo subspecies.[33]


Genetic bottlenecks related to the human population

Human parasite: analysis of louse genes

Alan Rogers, a co-author of this study and professor of anthropology at the University of Utah, says: “The record of our past is written in our parasites.” Rogers and others have proposed the bottleneck may have occurred because of a mass die-off of early humans due to a globally catastrophic volcanic eruption. The analysis of louse genes confirmed that the population of Homo sapiens mushroomed after a small band of early humans left Africa sometime between 150,000 and 50,000 years ago.[34]

Human pathogen: analysis of Helicobacter pylori genes

Recent research states that genetic diversity in the pathogenic bacterium Helicobacter pylori decreases with geographic distance from East Africa, the birthplace of modern humans. Using the genetic diversity data, the researchers have created simulations that indicate the bacteria seem to have spread from East Africa around 58,000 years ago. Their results indicate modern humans were already infected by H. pylori before their migrations out of Africa, and H. pylori remained associated with human hosts since that time.[35]

Genetic bottlenecks of other mammals

The population of the Eastern African chimpanzee,[36] Bornean orangutan,[37] central Indian macaque[38] and all tiger,[39] and the separation of the nuclear gene pools of eastern and western lowland gorillas,[40] all recovered from very low sizes around 70,000-55,000 years ago.

Migration after Toba

It is currently not known where human populations were living at the time of the eruption. The most plausible scenario is that all the survivors were populations living in Africa, whose descendants would go on to populate the world. However, recent archeological finds, mentioned above, have suggested that a human population may have survived in India.[41]

Recent analyses of mitochondrial DNA have set the estimate for the major migration from Africa from 60,000 to 70,000 years ago,[42] around 10-20,000 years earlier than previously thought, and in line with dating of the Toba eruption to around 66,000 to 76,000 years ago. During the subsequent tens of thousands of years, the descendants of these migrants populated Australia, East Asia, Europe and finally the Americas. How the populations of Homo erectus soloensis on Java, and of Homo floresiensis on the island of Flores, Indonesia, survived has yet to be determined, but it appears they (like Homo neanderthalensis in Europe) were not affected by the fallout.[43]

See also

Citations and notes

  1. ^ a b Toba erupted four times during the Quaternary. This eruption was the strongest one, and it is known as the Youngest Toba Tuff (YTT). See Chesner et al. (1991), 200; Jones (2007), 174; Oppenheimer (2002), 1593–1594, Ninkovich et al. (1978), Global Volcanism Program.
  2. ^ Ninkovich et al., 1978
  3. ^ Chesner et al., 1991
  4. ^ Rose & Chesner (1987), 913; M. S. Twickler and K. Taylor (1996)
  5. ^ Oppenheimer (2002), 1593
  6. ^ Jones (2007), 174; Rose & Chesner (1987), 913
  7. ^ Petraglia et. al. (2007), 114; Zielinski et al. (1996), 837
  8. ^ Jones (2007), 173
  9. ^ Jones (2007), 174; Oppenheimer (2001) 1593–1596
  10. ^ Rampino & Self (1993a), passim
  11. ^ Zielinski et al. (1996), 837–840
  12. ^ Rampino & Self (1992), 52; Rampino & Self (1993a), 277
  13. ^ Robock et al. (2009) seem to agree on that.
  14. ^ Oppenheimer (2002), 1606
  15. ^ a b c Robock et al. (2009)
  16. ^ Adiabatic Lapse Rate, IUPAC Goldbook
  17. ^ Oppenheimer (2002), 1593, 1601
  18. ^ Self & Blake (2008), 41
  19. ^ Zielinksi (1996), 837
  20. ^ Robock et al. (2009)
  21. ^ Ambrose (1998), passim; Gibbons (1993), 27; McGuire (2007), 127–128; Rampino & Ambrose (2000), 78–80; Rampino & Self (1993b), 1955
  22. ^ Ambrose (1998); Rampino & Ambrose (2000), 71, 80
  23. ^ Supervolcanoes, BBC2, 3 February 2000
  24. ^ a b Ambrose(1998), 623–651
  25. ^ "When humans faced extinction". BBC. 2003-06-09. Retrieved 2007-01-05. 
  26. ^ Rampino & Ambrose (2000), 80
  27. ^ Dawkins, Richard (2004). "The Grasshopper's Tale". The Ancestor's Tale, A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. pp. 416. ISBN 0-618-00583-8. 
  28. ^ "Mount Toba Eruption - Ancient Humans Unscathed, Study Claims". Retrieved 2008-04-20. 
    * Sanderson, Katherine (July 2007). "Super-eruption: no problem?" ( – Scholar search). Nature. doi:10.1038/news070702-15. Retrieved 2008-12-12. 
    * John Hawks. "At last, the death of the Toba bottleneck". 
    * According to a February 2010 news article ("Newly Discovered Archaeological Sites in India Reveals Ancient Life". BERNAMA (Malaysian National News Agency). 23 February 2010. ) Petraglia's team has discovered further archaeological evidence in south and north India, and concluded that "many forms of life survived the supereruption, contrary to other research which has suggested significant animal extinctions and genetic bottlenecks". See also "Newly Discovered Archaeological Sites in India Reveals Ancient Life before Toba". 25 February 2010. Retrieved 28 February 2010. 
  29. ^ "Supervolcano Eruption In Sumatra Deforested India 73,000 Years ago". Science Daily. 24 November 2009. 
  30. ^ Williams et al. (2009)
  31. ^ "Environmental Impact of the 73 ka Toba Super-eruption in South Asia – ScienceDirect". 24 November 2009. Retrieved 3 March 2010. ; "New Evidence Shows Populations Survived the Toba Super-eruption 74,000 Years ago". University of Oxford. 22 February 2009. 
  32. ^ Oppenheimer (2002), 1605, 1606
  33. ^ If these results are accurate, then, even before the emergence of Homo sapiens in Africa, Homo erectus population was unusually small when the species was spreading around the world. See Huff et al. (2010), 6; Gibbons, Ann (19 January 2010). "Human Ancestors Were an Endangered Species". ScienceNow. 
  34. ^ "Of Lice And Men: Parasite Genes Reveal Modern & Archaic Humans Made Contact". University of Utah. Retrieved 2008-01-17. 
  35. ^ Linz B, Balloux F, Moodley Y, et al. (February 2007). "An African origin for the intimate association between humans and Helicobacter pylori". Nature 445 (7130): 915–8. doi:10.1038/nature05562. PMID 17287725. 
  36. ^ Goldberg, T.L. (1996). Genetics and biogeography of East African chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii). Harvard University, unpublished PhD Thesis. 
  37. ^ Steiper, M.E. (2006). "Population history, biogeography, and taxonomy of orangutans (Genus: Pongo) based on a population genetic meta-analysis of multiple loci". Journal of Human Evolution (50): 509-522. 
  38. ^ Hernandez, R.D.; M.J. Hubisz, D.A. Wheeler,4 D.G. Smith,5 B. Ferguson,6 D. Ryan,7 J. Rogers,8 L. Nazareth,9 A. Indap,10 T. Bourquin,11 J. McPherson,12 D. Muzny,13 R. Gibbs,14 R. Nielsen,15 C.D. Bustamante (2007). "Demographic histories and patterns of linkage disequilibrium in Chinese and Indian Rhesus macaques". Science (316): 240-243. 
  39. ^ Luo, S.-J.; J.-H. Kim, W.E. Johnson,4 J. Van der Walt,5 J. Martenson,6 N. Yuhid,7 D.G. Miquelle,8 O. Uphyrkina,9 J.M. Goodrich,10 H.B. Quigley,11 R. Tilson,12 G. Brady,13 P. Martelli,14 V. Subramaniam,15 C. McDougal,16 S. Hean,17 S.-Q. Huang,18 W. Pan,19 U.K. Karanth,20 M. Sunquist,21 J.L.D. Smith,22 S.J. O'Brien (2004). "Phylogeography and genetic ancestry of tigers (Panthera tigris)". PLoS Biology (2): 2275-2293. 
  40. ^ Thalman, O.; A. Fisher, F. Lankester, S. Pääbo, L. Vigilant (2007). "The complex history of gorillas: insights from genomic data". Molecular Biology and Evolution (24): 146-158. 
  41. ^ Petraglia & al. (2007), passim.
  42. ^ "New 'Molecular Clock' Aids Dating Of Human Migration History". ScienceDaily. Retrieved 2009-06-30. 
  43. ^ Human species before and after the genetic bottleneck associated with Toba


External links

Simple English

of a supervolcano]]

The Toba catastrophe theory is a scientific theory that the volcano Toba (on Sumatra) erupted in such a big way that it caused a widespread human catastrophe. The eruption happened between 75,000 and 70,000 years ago. This would have reduced sunlight for several years, and average temperature would have dropped between 3–3.5oC.[1] This is thought to have caused most of the humans living at that time to die. According to the theory, only 10,000 (perhaps only 1,000) pairs of humans survived the disaster. Perhaps it led to the other hominids becoming extinct, though the Neanderthals certainly survived in Europe and Eurasia. After this, the Earth was colonised again, starting from Africa.


  1. Robock, A., C.M. Ammann, L. Oman, D. Shindell, S. Levis, and G. Stenchikov (2009). [Expression error: Unexpected < operator "Did the Toba volcanic eruption of ~74k BP produce widespread glaciation?"]. Journal of Geophysical Research 114: D10107. doi:10.1029/2008JD011652. 


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