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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.

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Figure 1: VBB and PP5-6 and its relationship to other YTT study sites.
Figure 2: The location of the YTT isochron at PP5-6.
Figure 3: The shard distribution, OSL dates and artefact plots as a composite digital cutaway at VBB.
Figure 4: Geochemical comparisons between extremely low abundance cryptotephra at VBB and PP5-6, and distal and proximal YTT.
Figure 5: The density of plotted finds across the upper LBSR, ALBS, and SADBS at PP5-6.


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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




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.

Corresponding authors

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

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Examples of VBB and PP5-6 extremely low abundance cryptotephra.

a, Two shard-like grains from PP5-6 in thin section (originally discovered by P.K.). b, Shard from PP5-6 sample 48 (scanning electron microscopy image). c, Shard from PP5-6 sample 125 (in thin section using plane-polarized light). df, Shards from VBB (from polished epoxy rounds using plane-polarized light).

Extended Data Figure 2 Individual sample transects on the sections and the shard counts from the transect.

Sample transects are shown on the left and shard counts are shown on the right. a, Transect A. b, Transect B. c, Transect C. The small bars showing shard counts of less than 1 indicate a sample with no shards. See Extended Data Fig. 4 for the overall location of the transects relative to one another.

Extended Data Figure 3 Individual transects on the sections and the shard counts per transect.

a, Transect D. b, Transect E. c, Transect F. Transects are shown on the section (left), and shard counts per transect plotted (right). The small bars showing shard counts of less than 1 indicate a sample with no shards. See Extended Data Fig. 4 for the overall location of the transects relative to one another.

Extended Data Figure 4 Panoramic photograph showing zones of contact between LBSR, ALBS and SADBS, and the location of shard sample transects.

White lines indicate boundaries between stratigraphic aggregates and the yellow line indicates the YTT isochron.

Extended Data Figure 5 Geochemical comparisons between the VBB and PP5-6 extremely low abundance cryptotephra and distal and proximal YTT.

a, CaO versus SiO2 (wt%). b, Rb versus Y (parts per million, p.p.m.). Note the change in symbols between a and b to separate YTT distal glass from Toba caldera and Malaysian samples.

Extended Data Figure 6 Comparison of trace-element chemistry.

a, Rare-earth element plot comparing new data for YTT from Bukit Sapi (Supplementary Table 1) to previously published data34. b, Comparison of rare-earth element data for VBB, YTT from Lake Malawi and Bukit Sapi.

Extended Data Table 1 Comparison of VBB, PP5-6, Lake Malawi, Bukit Sapi and Toba caldera shard analyses
Extended Data Table 2 Major and minor trace element chemistry for VBB and PP5-6
Extended Data Table 3 The posterior estimates of site for each archaeological sample in the major elements model
Extended Data Table 4 The posterior estimates of site for each archaeological sample in the trace elements model

Supplementary information

Life Sciences Reporting Summary (PDF 71 kb)

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Tables, a Supplementary Discussion, and Supplementary References. (PDF 2359 kb)

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. (MP4 26931 kb)

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. (MP4 16561 kb)

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. (MP4 16573 kb)

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. (MP4 16559 kb)

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Smith, E., Jacobs, Z., Johnsen, R. et al. Humans thrived in South Africa through the Toba eruption about 74,000 years ago. Nature 555, 511–515 (2018).

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