In a short span of history, humanity may have become an endangered species.
Proponents of this idea call it the Toba catastrophe theory. Looking at the geology of the Earth, it becomes clear that a supervolcano erupted around Lake Toba in Indonesia about 74,000 years ago.
To learn a little more about this key time period, modern Homo sapiens evolved just 200,000 years ago, and the history of records goes back only 6,000+ years.
Described as “the most powerful eruption in human history,” the Toba volcanic incident threw massive amounts of dust and debris into Earth’s atmosphere, blanketing the sky in a thick layer of soot that obscured the Sun.
The extent of this “volcanic winter” is hotly debated, but some scientists argue that volcanic ash may have lowered global temperatures by more than 5°C over the course of several years. In areas around Toba, the regional temperature drop can be as high as 15 °C.
These figures are approaching the upper limit of probability, with more conservative estimates suggesting temperatures have dropped by 1°C.
Whatever accurate estimate we take, it is clear from today’s climate change that even a 0.5°C change in temperature can have a profound effect on the world and its inhabitants. The natural world could turn over, plants stopped growing, and the animal world died.
Another curious incident occurred after the eruption of the Toba supervolcano.
Around 60,000 years ago, there is evidence that humanity was facing a sudden population decline. Some researchers argue that between 3,000 and 10,000 people of reproductive age could remain on Earth.
Is it possible that the Toba supervolcano caused a global catastrophe that almost wiped people off the face of the planet?
Some scholars say this theory has been debunked. In 2013, researchers studied deposits thousands of miles from a volcano in East Africa and argued that there were not many traces of ash and very little evidence of a significant change in temperature.
“The eruption would certainly have caused some short-term effects, perhaps over several seasons, but it did not seem to switch the climate into a new regime,” lead author Christine Lane of the Oxford School of Archaeology told BBC News in 2013.
“In my opinion, this puts a nail in the coffin of catastrophe theory.”
Although there are great doubts about the Toba catastrophe theory, the reason for this apparent destruction of the human population at this time remains obscure.
However, whatever the reason, it looks like our rebound was strong. Genetic studies also suggest that the population increased dramatically around 50,000 years ago, and other evidence shows that humans spread across Eurasia and experienced incredibly rapid technological growth.
Over the past 40,000 years of human history, things have really begun to heat up. The development of technology and the flourishing of works of art suggest that our cognitive abilities increased greatly around this time, eventually paving the way for the emergence of agriculture and civilizations.
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