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Did Supervolcanoes Affect Human Evolution?

First Posted: Oct 19, 2016 05:56 AM EDT
Krakatoa Erupts
Clouds pouring from the volcano on Krakatoa (aka Krakatau or Rakata) in south western Indonesia during the early stages of the eruption which eventually destroyed most of the island. Royal Society Report on Krakatoa Eruption - pub. 1888 Lithograph - Parker & Coward
(Photo : Hulton Archive / Stringer Getty Images)

About 200,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens were going about their daily business in Africa, a series of supervolcanoes were rocking Ethiopia. The eruptions would have not only changed the environment prevalent during that time period, but also could have made our earliest ancestors migrate from the region leading to cultural and evolutionary changes, as per recent suggestions by a researcher.

According to a study by Dr William Hutchison, the East African Rift was a hotbed of explosive volcanic activity around 320,000 to 170,000 years ago. The occurrence of supervolcanoes was five times higher than the average rate of volcanism for the region. The researching team observed the Corbetti and Aluto volcanoes and dated the eruptions with the help of radiocarbon dating and argon isotopes, as well as compared the results with other known rift volcanoes. On the basis of the research, Hutchison compared the past scale of volcanoes to Indonesia's Krakatoa eruption that took place in 1883.

Furthermore, according to Hutchison, the increase in volcanism in the rift coincided with the arrival of modern man in the area about 200,000 years ago, marking a key point in human evolution. The eruptions would have noticeably changed the environment and landscape our ancestors lived in, influencing migration and evolution.

"These eruptions would have buried the rift floor in volcanic ejecta, disrupting water sources and habitats across wide areas," Dr Hutchison said. "We do not yet know how hominin populations responded to these episodes of explosive volcanism for example, whether entire populations uprooted before the major eruptions took place.

The researcher feels that the eruptions did precipitate migrations, separated populations and affected human evolution. However, he adds, that the impact of the supervolcanoes is a subject that needs to be studied more - especially to find out the exact scale of the eruptions, if they shut down rift migration corridors, and if yes then for how long a time period.

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