Toba? or the sperm whale effect?

74 thousand years ago, a big chunk of the island of Sumatra blew up. It was the biggest volcanic explosion in the past two million years, expelling 2800 times as much debris as the Mount Saint Helens eruption in Washington State in 1980. Ash from the super-eruption is found all the way from Lake Malawi to the South China Sea. The resulting Toba caldera measures about 20 by 60 miles.


The Toba eruption coincides with a shift back to glacial conditions, and it may be that there’s a connection, that Earth went through a long volcanic winter after the eruption, which shifted climate to a colder equilibrium.

Did Toba have an effect on human evolution? Somewhere between 100 and 50 thousand years ago, human populations went through a bottleneck: modern humans are descended from just 1,000 to 10,000 breeding pairs from that period. It’s been argued that Toba wiped out the majority of Homo sapiens around at the time, leaving only a small group of survivors.

But the evidence that Toba is responsible for the bottleneck is equivocal. In some places humans seem to have passed through the period of the eruption without major disruptions. Also, there’s a point that gets missed in a lot of popular reporting: just because a species went through a bottleneck doesn’t necessarily mean that the population of the whole species ever shrank to that size. In the case of Homo sapiens it could be that the total population was always many times larger than 1,000-10,000. It’s just that the other tens or hundreds of thousands got replaced. In other words, we may not be looking at an external catastrophe wiping out most of humanity, and a few groups of survivors recovering. Instead, we may be looking at a small population of our eventual ancestors expanding and outcompeting other populations, so that it was our ancestors, not a volcano, who made sure that most human beings alive 74,000 years ago didn’t leave descendants.

This may reflect something special about human evolution: human beings typically belong to tribes and ethnic groups defined by distinctive cultures, and cultural boundaries (including language boundaries) often act as barriers to interbreeding. Several authors have suggested that this may make human beings unusually susceptible to population replacement via “cultural group selection,” and that this might account for humans having unusually low effective population size, as genes “hitchhike” along with expanding cultures. Interestingly, sperm whales, which live in populations defined by different song dialects (and other cultural differences) may show the same genetic pattern.

In May 2015, the Toba volcano grew more active than usual, producing large emissions of steam and foul gases. Locals were reported to be concerned.


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