The Toba Super-Eruption: The Global Catastrophe that Creationists Ignore

An ash plume rising from Eyjafjallajökull on April 2010. Ash from this volcano grounded air-traffic in Europe for days and weeks in 2010. This was a small explosion compared to Krakatoa, Pinatubo, and Mt St Helens, and yet even those were tiny eruption compared to super-eruptions in places like Yellowstone and Sumatra. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Sudden catastrophic events are not unknown in Earth’s history.  Large craters are evidence of past cosmic impacts.  Widespread layers of volcanic ash are a testimony of massive volcanic eruptions.   But when did these catastrophes occur and could they have impacted human history?

Standard geological models place the largest catastrophic events many eons ago.  So long ago that no modern human being was alive at the time and thus we have no written historical records.  In contrast to this understanding of earth’s history young earth creationists (YECs) compress all of Earth’s history into approximately 6000 years and place humans beings on the Earth only 6 days after its creation.  Therefore, all catastrophic geological events must have occurred within man’s time on this Earth.

YECs propose a catastrophic event that is not recognized by the conventional geological model: a global flood just 4500 years ago that completely restructured the entire face of the Earth.  But what about other catastrophes that conventional geologists do recognize?  There are large craters and massive ash layers that attest to cosmic impacts and volcanic eruptions.  The YEC flood geology hypothesis usually proposes that these events occurred concurrently with global flood or just following it.  Hence, even if they recognize these other events they still place them within a short time-span about 4500 years ago.

Is the compression of all volcanic and extraterrestrial impact activity within a few thousand years a reasonable hypothesis?  Certainly not!  The YEC hypothesis fails to account for much of the observed evidence that these catastrophic events have left on the face of the Earth.

Today I want to draw your attention to just one example of the failure of the young-earth hypothesis to provide a suitable explanatory framework for the observations we make of the world around us.  We will look at one of the largest volcanic eruptions in earth’s history: the Toba super-eruption. Unlike other global catastrophes that happened long ago, this massive catastrophe certainly impacted people.  When this super-eruption occurred and how it affected people raise many questions about human history that Christians and YECs in particular must consider as they develop a biblical understanding of the history of humanity.

The Toba Volcano super-eruption – possibly the largest volcanic explosion in Earth’s young or old history 

The entire May 2012 issue of Quaternary International (see references) is devoted to research devoted to understanding the history and implications of the Toba volcano super-eruption.  The Toba volcano is found near the center of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.   It doesn’t look like a volcano today because in the past it completely blew its top and then collapsed into what is called a caldera which then filled with water to form a huge (100km x 30km) lake.  A minimum of 2800 cubic kilometers of material was thrown into the air during its most recent explosion or series of explosions.  To put that in perspective the Krakatoa volcano in 1883 threw about 20 cubic kilometers of material into the atmosphere some of which circled the globe causing dazzling sunsets in Europe (see footnote 1).   Mt. St. Helens in North America only threw up 1 cubic kilometer or less.  Therefore, the Toba eruption was some 2800 times as large!  The Toba super-eruption may be the single largest volcanic explosion in earth’s history.

Lake Toba which is found today in the collapsed caldera crater of Toba volcano in Sumatra. The mountains in the distance from the rim of this huge crater. This lake is 100km long and 30km wide and was formed after an estimated 2800 cubic kilometers of ash was thrown into the atmosphere. For comparison, Mt. St Helens in Washington State only spewed 1 cubic kilometer of ash.

The extent of this eruption is difficult to comprehend and can hardly be overstated!  It was massive but how do we know how massive?  The size of this explosion is estimated partly from the vast crater it left where the volcanic peak must have once stood (see the picture above of the lake that now resides in what is left of the volcano).  But we are also able to take measurements of the ash layer, called tuff, it left over all of southeast Asia and even most of the Indian subcontinent.  Some ash layers near the volcano are over 1000 feet thick!  Ash layers, several inches thick, from this eruption can be found as far away as 2000 miles from the volcano.  Evidence of this volcanic eruption is even recorded in the Greenland Ice cores (The Toba Super-Eruption and Polar Ice Cores).  A thick layer of ash several inches to a foot thick is found in sediment cores pulled from the floor of the Indian and South China Sea.   All of these ash layers can readily be assigned to the Toba volcano based on their unique chemical signatures.

Comparison of material emitted for a number of famous volcanic eruptions. All the ones that emitted 100 cubic kilometers or more and considered super-eruptions. Toba has erupted more than once but the one shown is the youngest. Image credit: USGS – http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/images/pglossary/eruptionsize.php

The Toba Volcano exploded many times – in itself a huge problem for YECs – but the most recent explosion was the largest.  Many studies – see references below – of the most recent Toba super-eruption tuffs called the YTT (Youngest Toba Tuff) suggest, not surprisingly, that this event affected the climate of the earth by blocking sunlight which caused lower temperatures and altered weather patterns.  As a result even regions that escaped the effects of volcanic ash suffered some environmental impacts.   Where the ash did fall, it dramatically effected the vegetation for a long time.  We know this because detailed studies of pollen and plant parts found in sediments below the ash layers in India and Indonesia have been conducted and from sediment cores from the Indian Ocean.  Here pollen found below the ash layer, in the ash layers itself and above the ash layer represent  the pollen that was falling into the ocean at this times.  Collectively, these data strongly suggest is that there were widespread tropical forests and dense deciduous forests with little grass in most of India prior to this volcanic eruption.  However, the sediments above the ash layers tell a different story. They record dryer conditions with grasslands contributing a much greater portion of the fossils in the sediments.

A cross-section of the ash layer found in a valley in India.  the white layer at the bottom is the original air-borne ash fall layer. the whitish layers above represent ash that was eroded from higher elevations and deposited in the valley location.  Above that are multiple layers of ancient soil horizons.  This site is more than 1000 miles from the origin point of the ash!!  Image credit: http://www.foxnews.com/images/299448/0_22_070709_toba_deposit.jpg

When did the Toba Super-Eruption Happen?
You might be thinking, wow, very interesting, but why haven’t I heard of such a dramatic event in Earth’s history?  That may be because multiple dating techniques tell us that this catastrophe happened about 75,000 years ago.  This date corresponds well with global climate changes recorded in the in the Greenland and Antarctic ice cores at the same date.  It is debatable whether this volcanic eruption had a long-term (ie. thousands of years) effects on global climate but nonetheless, the eruption certainly had large immediate impacts over all of Southeast Asia and would have been noticed over the whole northern hemisphere.

Clearly, 75,000 years doesn’t jive with a 6000 year chronology.  YECs will quibble with the radiometric derived dates but these are well established by multiple techniques.   However, for the sake of argument, let us say that we can’t put a specific date on these events.  This would not eliminate the serious problems this volcano’s eruption causes for the young-earth view of earth’s history.

It is obvious that this layer of volcanic tuff is not very young because it is found many tens to hundreds of feet under other sediments in many places in Asia and under 10 to 50 feet of sediments in sea floor cores.  You might be thinking but don’t YECs think that those layers of sediments were caused by post-flood events like an Ice Age or run-off from the last vestiges of the end of a global flood? Yes, but this ash layer can’t have formed before a so-called biblical Ice Age or during a catastrophic eruption at the end of a global flood!   Because we have smoking-gun evidence that these ash layers were deposited much later the Toba super-eruption is one of the most significant geological events that must be addressed by the Christian community in its discussions of the age of the Earth and human history.

So just what is this smoking gun evidence that everyone must address?

Mapping of stone tool artifacts on a Middle Palaeolithic occupation surface under the Toba ash in India. On the lower level of this site, stone tools have been found that were definitely created by human beings.  (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Oxford)

Toba Super-Eruption and Human Migration
The YTT (youngest Toba tuff) ash layer is particular relevant to any discussion of human origins and migration and is why this ash layer has been studied by anthropologists so intensively the last 5 years.

Why, because in a valley in southern India (see picture to right) where this ash layer has been preserved exceptionally well, more than 200 stone tools have been found in layers of sediments just below the ash layer.  In addition, 500 miles to the north there is another site where this ash has been investigated and evidence of human occupation below the ash has been found there as well.  The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from these stone tools is that someone was living in India when the Toba volcano blew its top.   For many years anthropologist have hotly debated who left these stone tools at this location and whether they were all killed by the volcano and had to repopulate southeast Asia from Africa/Middle East again or if some may have survived in small numbers and repopulated the region.  However, this debate is not as important as the observation that tools are found above and below this catastrophic event boundary.

Implications for Young Earth Creationism
This massive and apparently world-altering volcanic explosion cannot be explained by YECs as happening concurrently with a global flood.   Here we have an example of a volcano that must have obliterated nearly all life on Sumatra when it blew and likely completely deforested most of Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and even parts of India.  Massive layers of air-borne ash would have killed the majority of animals in this entire region.   But rather than try to explain this as happening while Noah and his family where safe inside the Ark, the evidence of humans occupying a site before this massive volcanic eruption necessitates that this volcano had to have blown its top much more recently in the YEC time-line.  Why?  Because most creationists believe that all humanity was gathered together at Babel several hundred years after the Flood.  Therefore, these stone tools could not have been dropped at this location in India until after people had dispersed there from Babel.

For YECs, the volcano must not have destroyed Sumatra until well after the dispersal of peoples from Babel.  However, I have found not a single YEC commentary on this significant historical event other than one comment (see references) by Brian Thomas at ICR who, writing about human technological capacities in the past, referenced the presence of artifacts below the Toba ash layers as evidence that creators of these artifacts were surely fully human and not some other hominid species.  Thomas seemed to be completely oblivious to the challenges that the very presence of the artifacts present to the creationist time-line irrespective of the spiritual status of their creators.  By claiming these tools were created by humans he removes the only possible hope of explaining this ash layer away – that the “tools” are just accidental products of rocks bumping into each other.

There is so much more that could be said about this volcano and its effects but I don’t want to distract anyone from the most important conclusion:  With regards to a young earth paradigm, the evidence of a super-eruption and the artifacts that it preserved leave no reasonable doubt  that people with stone-age technology had already migrated far out of the Middle East and Africa and were impacted by a massive catastrophe that could not have been part of a global flood event.   So, when did these people live?  How did they get there?  How could this ash be covered by many dozens to hundreds of feet of sediments including many other “ancient” sites of human occupation that predate any written record?  Why did the people who lived here only have very crude rock flaking technology if they had just dispersed – probably in less than one lifetime – from building a sophisticated tower of Babel? How could this massive eruption not have been noticed by people all over the world and been recorded in human history? When it comes to the human origins, I simply see no answers to these questions for anyone who wishes to compress these events into a short time window.  Thus far, there hasn’t even been an attempt to provide an explanation for the Toba ash by a young earth creationist.

References, Sources and Interesting Links:
This is a link to the Article index for the May issue of Quaternary International.  If you have access to the articles there is a wealth of information here.
Middle Paleolithic assemblages from the Indian subcontinent before and after the Toba super-eruption.  M Petraglia, R Korisettar, N Boivin, C Clarkson… Science 6 July 2007:  Vol. 317 no. 5834 pp. 114-116
science direct highlight of research on the human occupation of this region at this time.
Michael D. Petraglia, Ravi Korisettar, J.N. Pal.  The Toba Volcanic Super-eruption of 74,000 Years Ago: Climate Change, Environments, and Evolving Humans.  Quaternary International
,   Volume 258, 1 May 2012, Pages 1–4
http://www.icr.org/article/supervolcanoes-mount-st-helens-eruption/
  – Supervolcanoes and the Mount St. Helens Eruption,  By Steven Austin.  Here Austin presents an argument for supervolcanoes during the flood with gradual reduction of force after the flood to the present. 
http://www.icr.org/article/early-advanced-human/
  – Brian Thomas of ICR makes comment on the Toba eruption but doesn’t say when and doesn’t mention the volcano’s power.  He just uses it as an example of humans in India being advanced (advanced apparently means only capable of making stone tools?!).

Footnote 1:  Wikipedia description of Krakatoa explosion:

On 27 August four enormous explosions took place at 05:30, 06:44, 10:02, and 10:41 local time. At 5:30 am, the first explosion was at Perboewatan volcano, triggering a tsunami heading straight to Telok Betong, now known as Bandar Lampung. At 6:44 am, Krakatoa exploded again on Danan volcano, with the resulting tsunami stretching eastward and westward. The largest explosion, at 10:02 am, was so violent that it was heard 3,110 km (1,930 mi) away in Perth, Western Australia, and the Indian Ocean island of Rodrigues near Mauritius, 4,800 km (3,000 mi) away, where they were thought to be cannon fire from a nearby ship. Each explosion was accompanied by large tsunamis, which are believed to have been over 30 meters (98 feet) high in places. A large area of the Sunda Strait and a number of places on the Sumatran coast were affected by pyroclastic flows from the volcano. The energy released from the explosion has been estimated to be equal to about 200 megatons of TNT, roughly four times as powerful as the Tsar Bomba, the most powerful thermonuclear weapon ever detonated. At 10:41 am, a landslide tore off half of Rakata volcano, causing the final explosion.

**This is an updated and edited version of an article I wrote in 2012.

Comments

  1. Excellent — thanks.

    Note that the gremlins have gotten to your second caption, where we discover (twice) an unorthodox unit called the cubit kilometer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is interesting that stone tools were found below the ash layer. The idea that modern people didnt leave Africa until about 50,000 ya, is refuted by that data. The question could then be, were these people from an earlier out of Africa migration of modern humans, or were they either a different species or non modern Sapiens. Either scenario is possible given the crude (pre UPR) nature of the tools. Also, did they survive, or does the above-layer finding of tools come from another wave of migrants from Africa? There is evidence that Toba might have been responsible for the human population bottleneck, meaning that conditions following Toba were so bad, that humans decreased to near extinction population levels, possibly as low as 2000 in Africa. Whether anyone could have survived the cold and dryness in India is debatable. Thanks for the great article, and sorry I didnt address the YEC angle, but I dont think there is anything to add there, its pretty clear.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. datadroid says:

    Since this is a reissue of a 2012 article, you may want to clarify this phrase: “The entire May issue of Quaternary International…” to say “The entire May 2012 issue of Quaternary International…”

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    • Thanks, made that change. Funny, I remember thinking I was going to make that change but I am working on another article about the ancient Nile river gorge and there is a whole issue of a journal devoted to that subject that just came out. I think I got my posts mixed up in my head there. I will add that this is an updated post as well at the end.

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  4. This seems to be an example of catastrophism that YECs are unwilling to discuss or engage with seriously!

    I was puzzled however by the sentence “Because we have smoking-gun evidence that these ash layers were deposited much later …”. I wondered whether ‘later’ was a typo for ‘earlier’ (74,000 years ago being earlier than 4,500 years ago or less). But I think I was misreading or missing your intended meaning – ie you were referring to YEC ‘timelines’ and suggesting that the (last) Toba supervolcano explosion would have to be arbitrarily ‘placed’ by YECs as post-flood and indeed significantly post-flood (not ‘during flood’ as you are I think arguing that the human occupation of the site in India pre eruption was well established/lengthy). Funny how such a catastrophe happened in the span of human history that even YECs agree happened – and yet nobody (as I see you have highlighted) seems to have noticed. And there is no written record of the effects – far away from where it happened – of this massive explosion (yet there are written records of large regional floods several thousand years ago).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, by “later” I meant that in the YEC timeline they would be tempted to say this volcano went off right at the end of the Flood year but because people had to be in the area before it went off they are forced to admit it happened much later after people had migrated to these regions. But then why no record of this event? Even the Middle East would have been effected by this explosion.

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      • I’m curious, might yec proponents argue that humans could have migrated into the area pre-flood (think Cain being banished eastward), been wiped out by the flood (when they might say this eruption occured), and then others migrated there post-Babel? It would account for tools both below and above the ash layers. But maybe I’m missing something in what you explained? In any case, I appreciate what you write!

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        • Hi Ryan, thanks for the comment. The usual way that YECs describe the flood is that it resulted in all of the geological layers. This ash layer sits on top of 10,000 or more feet of layers of sedimentary rock. If all that rock was put down by the flood before the ash layer then the ash had to have occurred after the Flood. Also, these stone tools are found right below the ash and on top of the 10,000+ feet of fossil-bearing rocks and so if these tools were from pre-Flood people it would very difficult to explain how they ended up on top of all the layers of rock laid down by a global flood. This is why all stone tools are described by YECs as having been deposited by people after the Flood. But as I point out in this article that become especially problematic because it is hard to figure out how people got to India before this volcano blew its top after the Flood.

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  5. And now it has re-appeared on my screen …

    Like

  6. Reblogged this on New Horizons and commented:
    Interesting subject that touches on human origins and challenges Young Earth Creationism (YEC).

    Like

  7. christopher kederich says:

    There are many, many super-volcanoes scattered around the Earth. I would not hazard a guess as to a number, but suffice to say, lots! Obviously these were active over the vast period of geologic time, otherwise Earth would be like some sci-fi movie hell planet. Yet they have also built up some of the most iconic landscapes (Yellowstone, Wyoming; San Juan Mountains, Colorado; Mammoth Valley, California) of the American West. Also, a great deal of the fertility of the Great Plains soils derives to some degree from weathered air borne ash.
    The number of volcanoes that have erupted on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs has got to be in the tens of thousands, at least–though at most times there are only a few active concurrently. Therefore, unless you are a Geologist, it is unlikely you would consider the sheer scope of them.
    It is something else not explainable by YEC: fresh, young volcanoes and highly eroded, and buried ancient ones.

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  8. A similar case can be made with meteorite impacts. Anyone can take a map of the moon and count how many craters 100 km or more in diameter there are. These are caused by meteors large enough to cause planetary extinction events, and we can assume earth has been struck by the same number or more, since it has a deeper gravity well. And then if you do the math and divide that number into the creationist age of the earth (say 6,000 years), you end up with a catastrophic meteor impact every few decades. Which no one in history has ever recorded.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Daniel S. says:

      With meteorite craters, it gets even worse, Paul (or better, depending on your point of view). “Fossil” craters and the rare meteorite exist in the geologic record, so all through the Flood our planet must have been bombarded with enough massive meteorites to make it uninhabitable.
      There are too many ancient disasters to squeeze into a 6,000-year timeline without requiring the Earth to be a complete wasteland.

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  9. wowfunny251 says:

    Again, you mean young-earth creationists. The Toba eruption is no issue for old-earth creationists like me. In fact, it’s extremely important to my model of human origins.

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  10. domross43 says:

    What are other reasons this is not consistent with YEC?

    Like

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