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Research  A supervolcano erupted 74,000 years ago. Here’s how humans survived it.

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INTRO: Microscopic shards of glass that rained down from an ancient supervolcano eruption reveal how early modern humans adapted to dramatic climate change, according to a new study of a prehistoric site in northwestern Ethiopia.

For decades, scientists have debated just how apocalyptic it was when Toba, a supervolcano located in Sumatra, Indonesia, erupted some 74,000 years ago. Some proposed that the biggest eruption in millions of years triggered a catastrophic volcanic winter that nearly wiped out Homo sapiens. Others say that climate impacts varied greatly by region and weren’t extreme enough to have a major impact on human evolution.

In the new study, published in the journal Nature, scientists discovered tiny bits of volcanic glass from Toba buried alongside ancient arrowheads and fossilized remains of animals that were bygone meals, indicating that humans were there before, during and after the eruption.

The find adds to a growing body of evidence that the mega-eruption was not a near-extinction event for humans.

Even more intriguing, scientists found that humans shifted their diets in the extremely arid conditions that followed the eruption in the lowlands of Ethiopia. They ate more fish, which researchers think could have been readily harvested as the Shinfa River dried up, leaving shallow waterholes.

“It is sophisticated behavior … to fish, instead of hunting terrestrial mammals. That kind of behavioral flexibility is kind of a hallmark of modern humans today,” said John W. Kappelman Jr., a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin who began working at the site, called Shinfa-Metema 1, more than two decades ago.

The study also challenges a dominant idea about early human dispersal out of Africa: Experts have long thought that humans weren’t able to survive in extremely arid climates, and would have retreated to higher elevations and stayed in place rather than continuing to move through — and ultimately leave — the continent.

“They could handle seasonally arid sites,” Kappelman said, “so why would they have to retreat?” (MORE - details)

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