When Humans Nearly Vanished: The Catastrophic Explosion of the Toba Volcano

When Humans Nearly Vanished: The Catastrophic Explosion of the Toba Volcano

by Donald R. Prothero


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The fascinating true story of the explosion of the Mount Toba supervolcano--the Earth's largest eruption in the past 28 million years--and its lasting impact on Earth and human evolution

Some 73,000 years ago, the huge dome of Mount Toba, in today's Sumatra, Indonesia, began to rumble. A deep vibration shook the entire island. Jets of steam and ash emanated from the summit, followed by an explosion louder than any sound heard by Homo sapiens since our species evolved on Earth. The eruption of the Toba supervolcano released the energy of a million tons of explosives; seven hundred cubic miles of magma spewed outward in an explosion forty times larger than the largest hydrogen bomb and more than a thousand times as powerful as the Krakatau eruption in 1883. So much ash and debris was injected into the stratosphere that it partially blocked the sun's radiation and caused global temperatures to drop by five to nine degrees. It took a full decade for Earth to recover to its pre-eruption temperatures.

When Humans Nearly Vanished presents the controversial argument that the Toba catastrophe nearly wiped out the human race, leaving only about a thousand to ten thousand breeding pairs of humans worldwide. Human genes today show evidence of a "genetic bottleneck," an effect seen when a population of organisms becomes so small that their genetic diversity is greatly reduced. This group of survivors could be the ancestors of all humans alive today. Donald R. Prothero explores the geological and biological evidence supporting the Toba bottleneck theory; reveals how the explosion itself was discovered; and offers insight into how the world changed afterward and what might happen if such an eruption occurred today. Prothero's riveting account of this calamitous supervolcanic explosion is not to be missed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781588346353
Publisher: Smithsonian Institution Press
Publication date: 10/16/2018
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 286,021
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

DONALD R. PROTHERO specializes in physics, planetary sciences, astronomy, earth sciences, and vertebrate paleontology. He taught for 35 years at the college level at Columbia, Knox, Pierce, and Vassar colleges, most recently as professor of geology at Occidental College and as lecturer in geobiology at the California Institute of Technology. He has authored or edited more than 300 scientific papers and 30 books, including Giants of the Lost World: Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Monsters of South America.

Table of Contents

Prologue: A Very Bad Day on Planet Earth 1

1 Mystery of the Missing Megavolcano 7

Serendipity 7

Frozen in the Ice 10

Data in Davy Jones's Locker 14

Blowing the Case Wide Open 20

Mystery Solved 23

2 Vulcan's Fury 27

The Forge of Hephaistos 27

Incineration 37

Why Do Volcanoes Behave So Differently from One Another? 44

3 Land of the Killer Volcanoes 47

The Indonesian Arc 47

Krakatau Cracks 50

Tambora and the Year without a Summer 57

Supervolcanoes 65

4 Clues in Your Genes 69

The Blueprint of Life 69

Too Many Genes 77

Clockwork DNA 82

"Mitochondrial Eve" 85

Through the Bottleneck 89

Bottlenecks in Humans 91

5 Roots 95

The Third Chimpanzee 95

Fossils versus Molecules 101

Out of Eurasia? 103

The Piltdown Hoax 108

6 Out of Africa 113

The Taung Child, Mrs. Ples, and Dear Boy 113

The Human Lineage 122

Our Genus, Homo 128

Modern Humans Evolve 130

7 Humanity at the Crossroads 137

Consilience 137

The Threads of Toba 140

Bottlenecks Everywhere 143

Testing the Hypothesis 145

The Critics Strike Back 147

Where Do We Stand Now? 151

8 Volcanoes of Doom 155

The "Big Five" 155

The Doom of the Dinosaurs 158

"The Great Dying" 163

The Third Eruption 166

Volcanoes and Extinction 168

9 Future Shocks 171

Could It Happen Again? 171

Supervolcanoes in America 177

A Perspective on Catastrophes 180

Acknowledgements 185

Index 187

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