How Did Early Humans Thrive Through Volcanic Winters?

The scientific team found microscopic glass shards that had travelled nearly 9,000 kilometers from the eruption site and landed in the archaeological sediments of two sites on the south coast of South Africa. 
(Image: via   wikimedia  /  CC0 1.0)
The scientific team found microscopic glass shards that had travelled nearly 9,000 kilometers from the eruption site and landed in the archaeological sediments of two sites on the south coast of South Africa. (Image: via wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

UTA researcher Naomi Cleghorn has participated in a Nature paper that describes how humans thrived in South Africa through the Toba volcanic eruption about 74,000 years ago, which created a decades-long volcanic winter. Cleghorn, a UTA associate professor of sociology and anthropology, said:

The scientific team found microscopic glass shards that had travelled nearly 9,000 kilometers from the eruption site and landed in the archeological sediments of two sites on the south coast of South Africa.

Main Map and profile. (Credit: University of Texas at Arlington)

Main Map and profile. (Credit: University of Texas at Arlington)

One was a rockshelter at Pinnacle Point where people lived — sleeping at night, cooking food, and sharing stories around the campfire. The others were at an open-air site just nine kilometers away, a location where humans collected stone and processed it for future tool manufacture.

Cleghorn began working with the Pinnacle Point archaeological project directed by Dr. Curtis Marean of Arizona State University in 2011 and was invited to collaborate on the Toba project in 2012.

After working on Pinnacle Point for four years, she began research at her current site at Knysna, about 80 kilometers east of Pinnacle Point.

The Toba shards provide a very reliable and precise means to date sites and could help tie together the chronologies of many sites across Southern Africa.

Naomi Cleghorn running the total station at the Pinnacle Point 5/6 site. (Credit: University of Texas at Arlington)

Naomi Cleghorn running the total station at the Pinnacle Point 5/6 site. (Credit: University of Texas at Arlington)

Once the two sites were identified, the process was extended to other sites, including Knysna, Cleghorn’s current dig. UTA’s support was instrumental in getting Cleghorn’s project started at Knysna.

Cleghorn used a Research Enhancement Program grant to run the initial test excavation, which provided the evidence needed to attract external funding for the project over several years from the Leakey Foundation, National Science Foundation, Templeton Foundation, and Hyde Family Foundation.

A view of the Knysna archaeological project. Pictured are students Sara Watson (UTA alum 2016), Deanna Dytchkowskyj, Kathryn Lauria, Clancey Butts; professional archaeologists, Nkosi Mgcaleka, Struan Henderson; and visiting scientist Dr. Irene Esteban. (Credit: University of Texas at Arlington)

A view of the Knysna archaeological project. Pictured are students Sara Watson (UTA alum 2016), Deanna Dytchkowskyj, Kathryn Lauria, and Clancey Butts; professional archaeologists, Nkosi Mgcaleka and Struan Henderson; and visiting scientist Dr. Irene Esteban. (Credit: University of Texas at Arlington)

The College of Liberal Arts also supported research into mineral pigment use at the Knysna site. So far, some dozen UTA students have participated in the Knysna field project, and this year Cleghorn is taking five current or former UTA students into the field with significant funding support.

Elizabeth Cawthon, dean of UTA’s College of Liberal Arts, said:

Provided by: University of Texas at Arlington [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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