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Good Reads  Earth System Sciences  Geosphere  Volcanology

When Humans Nearly Vanished The Catastrophic Explosion of the Toba Volcano

Popular Science New
By: Donald R Prothero(Author)
198 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
NHBS
Bringing together information from many disciplines, this is the fascinating story of one massive volcanic eruption and how it almost was the end of us.
When Humans Nearly Vanished
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  • When Humans Nearly Vanished ISBN: 9781588346353 Hardback Oct 2018 Usually dispatched within 6 days
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About this book

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.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • The fascinating story of a near-miss
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 6 Dec 2018 Written for Hardback


    When it comes to big volcanic eruptions, names such as Vesuvius, Mount Saint Helens, and Krakatau will ring a bell. But all of these were dwarfed by a far larger eruption that few outside of the science community will have heard of. Noted geologist, palaeontologist, and author Donald R. Prothero here tells the story of the eruption of Mount Toba in what is nowadays Sumatra, Indonesia, some 74,000 years ago. An eruption so gargantuan that it almost wiped out the human race.

    Prothero recounts the discovery of this eruption in his first chapter. Over the course of the 1980s to the mid-1990s various unrelated strands of evidence suggested to scientists that something dramatic happened around this time. Ice cores revealed a spike in atmospheric sulfuric acid, while marine sediment cores showed a large, rapid drop in global temperatures concurrent with an ash layer (the latter work was done by Mike Rampino, who, as you might remember from my review of his book Cataclysms: A New Geology for the Twenty-First Century, is fascinated by the link between disastrous events and the evolution of life). The proverbial smoking gun, that this something was a large volcanic eruption, was found when volcanologist John Westgate studied ash samples retrieved thousands of kilometres apart, all of which could be dated to some 74,000 years ago. It took four more years to find the actual culprit: an ancient caldera (a volcanic crater) in Sumatra that now held the waters of Lake Toba.

    With this in place, Prothero then spends most of the book on four other topics that are important to better understand the effects of the Toba eruption: volcanoes, genetics, human evolution, and mass extinctions. He vividly recounts the impact of well-known eruptions such as Krakatau (see also Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded), Tambora (see also Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World and Tambora and the Year without a Summer), Vesuvius, and the, to me, lesser-known eruption of Mount Pelée in Martinique (which I first encountered in Volcanoes: Encounters Through the Ages). Next to causing huge loss of life, the first two also had very observable effects on the weather, causing widespread crop failure and famine, as well as knock-on effects on political affairs.

    Prothero then spends several chapters on the basics of genetics and human evolution, as well as mass extinctions and the importance of volcanism (see also The Ends of the World). This extensive excursion should result in readers all being on the same page when it comes to understanding the claim that the eruption and its impact on the planet’s climate caused a genetic bottleneck in humans. A bottleneck comes about when the majority of a species dies, leaving few survivors and thus limited genetic diversity in the gene pool from which to repopulate. And this is exactly what happened with humans around this time. Several species went extinct, and for Homo sapiens estimates suggest only 1,000 to 10,000 breeding pairs remained. And there is a raft of supporting evidence, such as genetic bottlenecks in other species (cheetahs, tigers and orangutans), and palaeoclimatic evidence of global cooling.

    Though I tore through this book, I have two pieces of criticism. One is minor: plenty of papers and books are mentioned and could probably be identified, but a list of references is not included. The other is quite major: in the end, Prothero does not write all that much about the actual eruption and its consequences. The eruption is dealt with in chapter 1, and a lot of the supporting evidence in 13 pages in chapter 7. On page 145 he even writes that: “much has been said and written about the Toba catastrophe hypothesis, and we cannot summarize all of the discussion even in a book like this one”. I would argue this book is exactly the place to do just that!

    Instead Prothero spends several chapters on the four topics I mentioned earlier. The upside of this is that if you come to this book knowing little about genetics, human evolution, volcanoes, or mass extinctions, Prothero makes sure that you will learn all you need to know. The downside is that it feels this is done at the expense of a more in-depth discussion of the evidence supporting the catastrophic nature of the eruption, as well as the criticism levelled against it. And some of the material seems extraneous. I’m not sure that elaborations on the discovery of the structure of DNA, junk DNA, or the Piltdown hoax – fascinating as Prothero’s writing on it is – are fully relevant to the story at hand.

    This criticism notwithstanding, When Humans Nearly Vanished is incredibly well written. Prothero is a masterful storyteller who makes complex science easy to grasp. Especially when describing past eruptions in combination with eyewitness accounts, his writing is vivid, regularly causing me to gasp as he drove home the scale of these events (all of which were but a sneeze compared to Toba). As Prothero mentions, outside of academic circles this topic is relatively poorly known and no popular book on it has been written before. With that in mind, if you have any interest in mass extinctions or volcanoes, you will want to read this book.
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Biography

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.

Popular Science New
By: Donald R Prothero(Author)
198 pages, b/w photos, b/w illustrations
NHBS
Bringing together information from many disciplines, this is the fascinating story of one massive volcanic eruption and how it almost was the end of us.
Media reviews


"Prothero (The Story of the Earth in 25 Rocks), a paleontologist and geologist, describes Toba's eruption on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, around 74,000 years ago, as the "largest volcanic eruption in the past 28 million years", and briefly touches on the theory of how it decimated humanity, leading to a population bottleneck that partly explains the relative lack of genetic diversity in humans today. He also touches on the process by which scientists discovered the eruption had ever occurred, which only became apparent with new findings in 1993. Prothero writes [...] a precis of the current state of knowledge in these diverse fields."
Publishers Weekly

"Donald Prothero takes us on a journey through the complex evolution of scientific fields – including volcanology, biology, and archaeology – that converged to form the controversial idea that an enormous eruption of the Toba volcano, in today's Indonesia, may have caused a population bottleneck. This is a tale of discovery, exploring how large explosive eruptions capture our imagination and why the answers to scientific inquiries often begin with 'It's complicated.'"
– Janine Krippner, volcanologist, Concord University

"A passionate examination of a controversial subject. Prothero traces how one of the largest eruptions in the history of our species may have irrevocably changed the evolution of Homo sapiens, delving into both volcanology and anthropology and how they are intertwined."
– Erik Klemetti, Associate Professor and Chair, Geosciences, Denison University, and author of Discover's Rocky Planet blog

"Prothero takes the reader on a breathtaking tour of volcanoes and human evolution. By deftly weaving together tales of discovery in many realms, from supervolcanoes to DNA, Prothero shows how a supervolcano nearly brought an end to the human race 74,000 years ago."
– David M. Pyle, Professor, Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, and author of Volcanoes: Encounters through the Ages

"Prothero has done a very fine job of assembling information from many disciplines, including geology, genetics, and anthropology, and weaving it into a coherent and eminently readable account of the possible impacts of the gargantuan eruption of the Toba volcano in Sumatra some 74,000 years ago. There is something for everyone in this eclectic and lively piece of popular scientific writing."
– Martin Williams, Adjunct Professor in Earth Sciences and Emeritus Professor, University of Adelaide

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