Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. 1

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

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Storey, M ., Roberts, R. G. & Saidin, M. 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)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Mark, D. F . 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)

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

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

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Rampino, M. R. & Ambrose, S. H. in Volcanic Hazards and Disasters in Human Antiquity (eds McCoy, F. W. & Heiken, G. ) 71–82 (Geological Society of America, 2000)

  6. 6

    Lane, C. S ., Cullen, V. L ., White, D ., Bramham-Law, C. W. F. & Smith, V. C. Cryptotephra as a dating and correlation tool in archaeology. J. Archaeol. Sci. 42, 42–50 (2014)

    Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Karkanas, P ., Brown, K. S ., Fisher, E. C ., Jacobs, Z. & Marean, C. W. 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)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Oestmo, S. & Marean, C. W. in Field Archaeology from Around the World (eds Carver, M. B. et al.) 5955–5959 (Springer, 2015)

  9. 9

    Oestmo, S ., Schoville, B. J ., Wilkins, J. & Marean, C. W. A Middle Stone Age paleoscape near the Pinnacle Point caves, Vleesbaai, South Africa. Quat. Int. 350, 147–168 (2014)

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Blockley, S. P. E . 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)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

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

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Lane, C. S ., Chorn, B. T. & Johnson, T. C. 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)

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Westgate, J. A . 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)

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

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

    Google Scholar 

  15. 15

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

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

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

    ADS  CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Marean, C. W. 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)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

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

  19. 19

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

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

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

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Fisher, E. C . 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)

    Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Bernatchez, J. A. & Marean, C. W. Total station archaeology and the use of digital photography. SAA Archaeol. Rec. 11, 16–21 (2011)

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23

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

  24. 24

    Jochum, K. P. 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)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

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

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

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

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

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

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

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

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Feakins, S. J., Brown, F. H. & deMenocal, P. B. Plio-Pleistocene microtephra in DSDP site 231, Gulf of Aden. J. Afr. Earth Sci. 48, 341–352 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Brown, F. H., Haileab, B. & McDougall, I. 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)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

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

  32. 32

    Brown, F. H., Nash, B. P., Fernandez, D. P., Merrick, H. V. & Thomas, R. J. Geochemical composition of source obsidians from Kenya. J. Archaeol. Sci. 40, 3233–3251 (2013)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. 33

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

    ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. 34

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

  35. 35

    Weller, D. J., Miranda, C. G., Moreno, P. I., Villa-Martínez, R. & Stern, C. R. Tephrochronology of the southernmost Andean Southern Volcanic Zone, Chile. Bull. Volcanol. 77, 107 (2015)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  36. 36

    Hildreth, W., Fierstein, J., Godoy, E., Drake, R. & Singer, B. The Puelche Volcanic Field: extensive Pleistocene rhyolite lava flows in the Andes of central Chile. Rev. Geol. Chile 26, https://doi.org/10.4067/S0716-02081999000200008 (1999)

  37. 37

    Ahlbrandt, T. S., Andrews, S. & Gwynne, D. T. Bioturbation in eolian deposits. J. Sediment. Res. 48, 839–848 (1978)

    Google Scholar 

  38. 38

    Guérin, G., Mercier, N., Nathan, R., Adamiec, G. & Lafrais, Y. On the use of the infinite matrix assumption and associated concepts: a critical review. Radiat. Meas. 47, 778–785 (2012)

    Google Scholar 

  39. 39

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

    Google Scholar 

  40. 40

    Jacobs, Z., Roberts, R. G., Nespoulet, R., El Hajraoui, M. A. & Debénath, A. 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)

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. 41

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

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  42. 42

    Roberts, R. G., Galbraith, R. F., Olley, J. M., Yoshida, H. & Laslett, G. M. 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)

    Google Scholar 

  43. 43

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

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  44. 44

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

    Google Scholar 

  45. 45

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  46. 46

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  47. 47

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  48. 48

    Smith, M. A., Prescott, J. R. & Head, J. N. Comparison of 14C and luminescence chronologies at Puritjarra rock shelter, central Australia. Quat. Sci. Rev. 16, 299–320 (1997)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  49. 49

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

  50. 50

    Lunn, D., Spiegelhalter, D., Thomas, A. & Best, N. The BUGS project: evolution, critique and future directions. Stat. Med. 28, 3049–3067 (2009)

    MathSciNet  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  51. 51

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

    Google Scholar 

  52. 52

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  53. 53

    Rhodes, E. J. 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)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  54. 54

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

    CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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

Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

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.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

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 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)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature25967

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

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.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing