For the first chapter of my first novel I imagined the Earth 100,000 years ago. It’s rare for those pre-historic times to hit the news and be popularised but the recent announcement that there was evidence of diminutive sized humans in the Philippines nearly 70,000 years ago – Homo luzonensis – caught my eye. The dating for their remains puts them there some time after the Toba event – scientists and climatologists have theorised that Toba was a climate defining event; in brief it seems to have triggered the last ice age. That ice age hit its peak about 20,000 years ago and was still retreating 10,000 years ago. The Guardian article mentions that they were there some 67,000 years ago which is several thousand years after the Toba event. I’ll touch on how I think they survived when most of our brand of humanity was wiped out.
The number of breeding human pairs has been estimated at less than 10,000 following the Toba event circa 75,000 years ago. The Toba event was the most significant volcanic eruption in that last few million years depositing a 6 inch layer of volcanic dust over South Asia and is held to be the trigger of the last ice age as well as the cause of a bottleneck in our genetic heritage. Toba, being in Indonesia, wouldn’t have been good news for these extinct pygmy folk who used to live just around the corner (in a geographical sense) in the Philippines.
Like many, I’m fascinated with how we experienced and lived through those extreme and dark times. To imagine how bad things were, let’s take stock of similar events in human history.
Volcanic dust from Krakatoa (1883) darkened the skies for several years (+ produced amazing sunsets) and Tambora (1815) produced a year without a summer. Going further back, the 1257 Samalas eruption (on Lombok) is estimated to have deposited 2½ cubic miles of ash and this is held to have caused the Little Ice Age. The effects of Toba would have been much more dramatic; it ejected 200 cubic miles of ash. The 1,000 year cooling event that followed is thought to have triggered the last ice age. There’s archaeological evidence of pre-Toba settlements in India which become inactive after the event. Those there would have had a choice: try to live in a land covered with volcanic fallout or flee.
In the Philippines getting further away wouldn’t have been an option however, if the local climate then was anything like it is now, the typhoon season would have pretty much washed away significant levels of fallout dust by year 1, and given this it’s arguable that vegetation might have bounced back more quickly.
They keep pushing back the earliest evidence of agriculture – atm it’s at 23,000 years ago – this being around the peak of the last ice age. The reduction to 10,000 humans comes from mitochondrial data + Y chromosome DNA modelling, i.e. from the genetic material that was passed on. Pre-Toba populations would have been greater but by how much?
I speculate that we (our ancestors) were in a settled albeit pre-agricultural phase and Toba had such a dramatic impact on human patterns of life, we were knocked back to the Stone Age. Going back to my first novel (A Guide to First Contact) I began with a picture of man living in harmony with nature (a total antithesis of how we live our lives now) and then gradually introduce change. This change is growth according to a plan. Change is painful, it hurts and in the end it is endured rather than enjoyed. Any joy comes from successfully riding the wave, and of course, of being witness to those that adapt less successfully.