Humans thrived in South Africa through the Toba eruption about 74,000 years ago



Approximately 74 thousand years ago (ka), the Toba caldera erupted in Sumatra. Since the magnitude of this eruption was first established, its effects on climate, environment and humans have been debated1. Here we describe the discovery of microscopic glass shards characteristic of the Youngest Toba Tuff—ashfall from the Toba eruption—in two archaeological sites on the south coast of South Africa, a region in which there is evidence for early human behavioural complexity. An independently derived dating model supports a date of approximately 74 ka for the sediments containing the Youngest Toba Tuff glass shards. By defining the input of shards at both sites, which are located nine kilometres apart, we are able to establish a close temporal correlation between them. Our high-resolution excavation and sampling technique enable exact comparisons between the input of Youngest Toba Tuff glass shards and the evidence for human occupation. Humans in this region thrived through the Toba event and the ensuing full glacial conditions, perhaps as a combined result of the uniquely rich resource base of the region and fully evolved modern human adaptation.

  • Subscribe to Nature for full access:



Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.


  1. 1.

    The 73 ka Toba super-eruption and its impact: history of a debate. Quat. Int. 258, 19–29 (2012)

  2. 2.

    ., & Astronomically calibrated 40Ar/39Ar age for the Toba supereruption and global synchronization of late Quaternary records. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 18684–18688 (2012)

  3. 3.

    . et al. A high-precision 40Ar/39Ar age for the Young Toba Tuff and dating of ultra-distal tephra: forcing of Quaternary climate and implications for hominin occupation of India. Quat. Geochronol. 21, 90–103 (2014)

  4. 4.

    An evolutionary anthropological perspective on modern human origins. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 44, 533–556 (2015)

  5. 5.

    & in Volcanic Hazards and Disasters in Human Antiquity (eds & ) 71–82 (Geological Society of America, 2000)

  6. 6.

    ., ., ., & Cryptotephra as a dating and correlation tool in archaeology. J. Archaeol. Sci. 42, 42–50 (2014)

  7. 7.

    ., ., ., & Interpreting human behavior from depositional rates and combustion features through the study of sedimentary microfacies at site Pinnacle Point 5-6, South Africa. J. Hum. Evol. 85, 1–21 (2015)

  8. 8.

    & in Field Archaeology from Around the World (eds et al.) 5955–5959 (Springer, 2015)

  9. 9.

    ., ., & A Middle Stone Age paleoscape near the Pinnacle Point caves, Vleesbaai, South Africa. Quat. Int. 350, 147–168 (2014)

  10. 10.

    . et al. A new and less destructive laboratory procedure for the physical separation of distal glass tephra shards from sediments. Quat. Sci. Rev. 24, 1952–1960 (2005)

  11. 11.

    . et al. Geochemical fingerprinting of the widespread Toba tephra using biotite compositions. Quat. Int. 246, 97–104 (2011)

  12. 12.

    ., & Ash from the Toba supereruption in Lake Malawi shows no volcanic winter in East Africa at 75 ka. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 110, 8025–8029 (2013)

  13. 13.

    . et al. Tephrochronology of the Toba Tuffs: four primary glass populations define the 75-ka Youngest Toba Tuff, northern Sumatra, Indonesia. J. Quat. Sci. 28, 772–776 (2013)

  14. 14.

    . et al. Direct linking of Greenland and Antarctic ice cores at the Toba eruption (74 ka bp). Clim. Past 9, 749–766 (2013)

  15. 15.

    . et al. An early and enduring advanced technology originating 71,000 years ago in South Africa. Nature 491, 590–593 (2012)

  16. 16.

    . et al. Hunter-gatherer genomic diversity suggests a southern African origin for modern humans. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 5154–5162 (2011)

  17. 17.

    Pinnacle Point Cave 13B (Western Cape Province, South Africa) in context: the Cape Floral kingdom, shellfish, and modern human origins. J. Hum. Evol. 59, 425–443 (2010)

  18. 18.

    et al. in Fynbos: Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation of a Megadiverse Region (eds et al.) 164–199 (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014)

  19. 19.

    Late Pleistocene human population bottlenecks, volcanic winter, and differentiation of modern humans. J. Hum. Evol. 34, 623–651 (1998)

  20. 20.

    . et al. Did the Toba volcanic eruption of 74 ka B.P. produce widespread glaciation? J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 114, D10107 (2009)

  21. 21.

    . et al. Technical considerations and methodology for creating high-resolution, color-corrected, and georectified photomosaics of stratigraphic sections at archaeological sites. J. Archaeol. Sci. 57, 380–394 (2015)

  22. 22.

    & Total station archaeology and the use of digital photography. SAA Archaeol. Rec. 11, 16–21 (2011)

  23. 23.

    Detection of Middle to Late Holocene Icelandic Cryptotephra in the Netherlands: Tephra versus Biogenic Silica. MSc thesis, Univ. Utrecht (2012)

  24. 24.

    et al. MPI-DING reference glasses for in situ microanalysis: new reference values for element concentrations and isotope ratios. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7, Q02008 (2006)

  25. 25.

    & A method for the quantitative measurement of rare earth elements in the ion microprobe. Int. J. Mass Spectrom. 69, 17–38 (1986)

  26. 26.

    et al. Transatlantic distribution of the Alaskan White River Ash. Geology 42, 875–878 (2014)

  27. 27.

    & Tephrochronology of the Siple Dome ice core, West Antarctica: correlations and sources. Quat. Sci. Rev. 30, 1602–1614 (2011)

  28. 28.

    et al. Holocene explosive eruptions in the Rungwe Volcanic Province, Tanzania. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 196, 91–110 (2010)

  29. 29.

    , & Plio-Pleistocene microtephra in DSDP site 231, Gulf of Aden. J. Afr. Earth Sci. 48, 341–352 (2007)

  30. 30.

    , & Sequence of tuffs between the KBS Tuff and the Chari Tuff in the Turkana Basin, Kenya and Ethiopia. J. Geol. Soc. London 163, 185–204 (2006)

  31. 31.

    Geochemistry, Geochronology and Tephrostratigraphy of Tephra from the Turkana Basin, Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya. Ph.D. thesis, Univ. Utah (1995)

  32. 32.

    , , , & Geochemical composition of source obsidians from Kenya. J. Archaeol. Sci. 40, 3233–3251 (2013)

  33. 33.

    & A melt inclusion study of the Toba Tuffs, Sumatra, Indonesia. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 197, 259–278 (2010)

  34. 34.

    Time Marker for the Late Pleistocene in Peninsular Malaysia: Study of the Volcanic Ash Deposits. MSc thesis, Univ. Malaysia (2014)

  35. 35.

    , , , & Tephrochronology of the southernmost Andean Southern Volcanic Zone, Chile. Bull. Volcanol. 77, 107 (2015)

  36. 36.

    , , , & The Puelche Volcanic Field: extensive Pleistocene rhyolite lava flows in the Andes of central Chile. Rev. Geol. Chile 26, (1999)

  37. 37.

    , & Bioturbation in eolian deposits. J. Sediment. Res. 48, 839–848 (1978)

  38. 38.

    , , , & On the use of the infinite matrix assumption and associated concepts: a critical review. Radiat. Meas. 47, 778–785 (2012)

  39. 39.

    & An improved single grain OSL chronology for the sedimentary deposits from Diepkloof Rockshelter, Western Cape, South Africa. J. Archaeol. Sci. 63, 175–192 (2015)

  40. 40.

    , , , & Single-grain OSL chronologies for Middle Palaeolithic deposits at El Mnasra and El Harhoura 2, Morocco: implications for Late Pleistocene human–environment interactions along the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa. J. Hum. Evol. 62, 377–394 (2012)

  41. 41.

    An OSL chronology for the sedimentary deposits from Pinnacle Point Cave 13B—a punctuated presence. J. Hum. Evol. 59, 289–305 (2010)

  42. 42.

    , , , & Optical dating of single and multiple grains of quartz from Jinmium Rock Shelter, Northern Australia: part II, results and implications. Archaeometry 41, 365–395 (1999)

  43. 43.

    , & Optical dating of dune sand from Blombos Cave, South Africa: I—multiple grain data. J. Hum. Evol. 44, 599–612 (2003)

  44. 44.

    & Assessment of beta dose-rate using a GM multicounter system. Radiat. Meas. 14, 187–191 (1988)

  45. 45.

    & Dose rates and radioisotope concentrations in the concrete calibration blocks at Oxford. Anc. TL 25, 5–8 (2007)

  46. 46.

    & Field gamma dose-rate measurement with a NaI (Tl) detector: re-evaluation of the ‘threshold’ technique. Anc. TL 25, 1–4 (2007)

  47. 47.

    & Cosmic ray and gamma ray dosimetry for TL and ESR. Int. J. Rad. Appl. Instrum. D 14, 223–227 (1988)

  48. 48.

    , & Comparison of 14C and luminescence chronologies at Puritjarra rock shelter, central Australia. Quat. Sci. Rev. 16, 299–320 (1997)

  49. 49.

    . et al. Bayesian Data Analysis (CRC, 2013)

  50. 50.

    , , & The BUGS project: evolution, critique and future directions. Stat. Med. 28, 3049–3067 (2009)

  51. 51.

    Development of the radiocarbon calibration program. Radiocarbon 43, 355–363 (2001)

  52. 52.

    Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates. Radiocarbon 51, 337–360 (2009)

  53. 53.

    et al. Bayesian methods applied to the interpretation of multiple OSL dates: high precision sediment ages from Old Scatness Broch excavations, Shetland Isles. Quat. Sci. Rev. 22, 1231–1244 (2003)

  54. 54.

    Dealing with outliers and offsets in radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon 51, 1023–1045 (2009)

Download references


This research was partially funded by the National Science Foundation (BCS-0524087 and BCS-1138073, C.W.M. and BCS-1460366, E.I.S. and C.W.M.), the Hyde Family Foundations (C.W.M.), the John Templeton Foundation (C.W.M.), the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University (C.W.M.), the Late Lessons from Early History program at ASU (C.W.M.), the ASU Strategic Initiative Fund, the Australian Research Council Discovery Project grant DP1092843 (Z.J.) and a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (C.L.). S.O. thanks the American–Scandinavian Foundation and NORAM. A.C. was partially funded by an AAAS-Pacific Division, Alan E. Leviton Student Research Award and grants from the UNLV Department of Geoscience. We thank the MAPCRM staff for their assistance, T. Lachlan and Y. Jafari for help with OSL dating, the Dias Museum for field facilities and SAHRA and HWC for permits. The staff at the National Lacustrine Core Facility at the University of Minnesota (LacCore) provided a sample of Lake Malawi core for shard processing and analysis. M. Storey provided samples of YTT from Bukit Sapi, Malaysia. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies.

Author information


  1. Department of Geoscience, University of Nevada Las Vegas, 4505 Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, Nevada 89154, USA

    • Eugene I. Smith
    • , Racheal Johnsen
    • , Minghua Ren
    • , Shelby Fitch
    •  & Amber Ciravolo
  2. ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage & Centre for Archaeological Science, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales 2522, Australia

    • Zenobia Jacobs
  3. Institute of Human Origins, School of Human Evolution and Social Change, PO Box 872402, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287-2402, USA

    • Erich C. Fisher
    • , Jacob A. Harris
    •  & Curtis W. Marean
  4. African Centre for Coastal Palaeoscience, Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape 6031, South Africa

    • Erich C. Fisher
    • , Simen Oestmo
    • , Naomi Cleghorn
    •  & Curtis W. Marean
  5. Human Evolution Research Institute, Department of Archaeology, University of Cape Town, Private Bag, Rondebosch 7701, South Africa

    • Jayne Wilkins
  6. Malcolm H. Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science, American School of Classical Studies, Soudias 54, Athens 10676, Greece

    • Panagiotis Karkanas
  7. Geoscience Consultants LLC, Henderson, Nevada 89014, USA

    • Deborah Keenan
  8. Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Texas at Arlington, 701 South Nedderman Drive, Arlington, Texas 76019, USA

    • Naomi Cleghorn
  9. Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Downing Place, Cambridge, CB2 3EN, UK

    • Christine S. Lane
  10. Iziko Museums of South Africa, Queen Victoria Street, Cape Town, PO Box 61, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa

    • Thalassa Matthews


  1. Search for Eugene I. Smith in:

  2. Search for Zenobia Jacobs in:

  3. Search for Racheal Johnsen in:

  4. Search for Minghua Ren in:

  5. Search for Erich C. Fisher in:

  6. Search for Simen Oestmo in:

  7. Search for Jayne Wilkins in:

  8. Search for Jacob A. Harris in:

  9. Search for Panagiotis Karkanas in:

  10. Search for Shelby Fitch in:

  11. Search for Amber Ciravolo in:

  12. Search for Deborah Keenan in:

  13. Search for Naomi Cleghorn in:

  14. Search for Christine S. Lane in:

  15. Search for Thalassa Matthews in:

  16. Search for Curtis W. Marean in:


C.W.M. conceived and coordinated the study, and directed the fieldwork at PP5-6; S.O. and J.W. directed fieldwork at the Vleesbaai site; C.S.L. advised and assisted with cryptotephra methods and results; E.C.F. conducted the geographic information systems analysis, shard distribution analysis and co-directed the excavations; E.I.S., A.C., S.O., D.K. and J.W. collected samples for the cryptotephra study; E.I.S., R.J. and S.F. processed samples, identified sources and constructed the profile; J.A.H. conducted the Bayesian analysis of the geochemistry; M.R. analysed shards by electron probe microanalysis; N.C. helped to direct the excavations and collected many of the samples; J.A.H. provided the statistical model; P.K. studied the sedimentology and geology of the site and first discovered the shards; T.M. is an excavation permit co-holder and contributes to the palaeoenvironmental studies; and Z.J. conducted the OSL dating and Bayesian modelling of OSL ages. All authors contributed to the writing of the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Eugene I. Smith or Curtis W. Marean.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks S. Blockley, R. Grun and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher's note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Life Sciences Reporting Summary

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Tables, a Supplementary Discussion, and Supplementary References.


  1. 1.

    The relationship between plotted tephra sediment samples and all plotted finds

    Animation showing the relationship of the plotted tephra sediment samples in relation to the 3D distribution of the plotted finds from the upper LBSR, ALBS, and SADBS and plotted finds from the Conrad Sands where the YTT Isochron has been identified. The animation was created using ESRI ArcGIS 10.3 and Corel VideoStudio Pro x4.

  2. 2.

    The relationship between plotted tephra sediment samples and all plotted shell remains

    Animation showing the distribution of plotted tephra sediment samples in relation to the 3D spatial distribution of plotted shell remains at site PP5-6. The animation was created using ESRI ArcGIS 10.3 and Corel VideoStudio Pro x4.

  3. 3.

    The relationship between plotted tephra sediment samples and plotted mammalian remains

    Animation showing the distribution of plotted tephra sediment samples in relation to the 3D spatial distribution of mammalian faunal remains at site PP5-6. The animation was created using ESRI ArcGIS 10.3 and Corel VideoStudio Pro x4.

  4. 4.

    The relationship between plotted tephra sediment samples and plotted lithics

    Animation showing the distribution of plotted tephra sediment samples in relation to the 3D spatial distribution of lithics at site PP5-6. The animation was created using ESRI ArcGIS 10.3 and Corel VideoStudio Pro x4.


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.