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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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.

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  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


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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.

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  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.

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