Did Sumatra’s Toba Eruption ca. 74,000 Years Ago Lead to Human Dominance of the Planet?

NASA Image of the Toba Caldera

I have just read a short book by independent scholar Kirkpatrick Sale called After Eden:  The Evolution of Human Domination (unfortunately not owned by Greensboro Public Library) which suggests that Homo sapiens drive for dominance of the natural world was triggered by a volcanic eruption which occurred on the Indonesian island of Sumatra about 74,000 years ago.

Sale’s theory is partly built upon that of anthropologist Stanley Ambrose (abstracted here) which has it that the eruption of the Toba Volcano caused temperatures to fall dramatically, plunging the earth into a “volcanic winter.”  As a consequence, many plants and animals became extinct and what was left of our own species, then ensconced in southern Africa and forced by necessity to become far more skillful and technologically adept hunters in order to survive, began exploiting nature to an unprecedented degree.

Sale then follows the landmarks in the prehistoric record of humankind through a lens of domination.  The lure of big game led to migration northward and the eventual spread of Homo sapiens (ca. 50,000 years ago) into Europe and Asia.  The cave art of Lascaux and Altamira (ca. 16,000 years ago) is interpreted as a form of ritual hunting magic.  Even the spread and development of agriculture (beginning ca. 12,000 years ago) is seen by Sale as essentially a further extension of human dominance over the natural world — and a negative one at that.

It’s a neat theory Sale has, and, coincidentally, some recent research on the eruption of the Toba Volcano has just been published which lends support to the idea that the eruption was indeed the event which started it all.

Researchers led by Alan Robock of Rutgers University employed a number of models using aerosol injection simulations to test the theory that the Toba eruption could have caused a volcanic winter as well as an ice sheet advance.  While they found no evidence the eruption could have initiated glaciation, “the models . . . [did suggest] a decade of severe volcanic winter that would likely have devastated humanity and global ecosystems.”  An abstract of their research is here.

Of course, Sale’s theory is but one of many you’ll run across in this dynamic field of study. 

Should you be interested in reading more, Greensboro Public Library has plenty of recent titles on human evolution, including:  Why Us?:  How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves by James Le Fanu; The Jesuit and the Skull:  Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man by Amir D. Aczel; The Last Human:  A Guide to Twenty-two Species of Extinct Humans by G.J. Sawyer and others; The Journey of  Man:  A Genetic Odyssey by Spencer Wells; Race and Human Evolution by Milford Wolpoff and Rachel Caspari; Darwin’s Sacred Cause:  How a Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution by Adrian Desmond and James Moore; Adam’s Tongue:  How Humans Made Language, How Language Made Humans by Derek Bickerton; Fire — The Spark that Ignited Human Evolution by Frances D. Burton (on order); The 10,000 year Explosion:  How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending; The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment by Paul R. Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich; The World from Beginnings to 4000 BCE by Ian Tattersall; Relics of Eden:  The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA by Daniel J. Fairbanks; and The First Word:  The Search for the Origins of Language by Christine Kenneally.

You can also find some neat stuff on human evolution in Science Online.


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