Sudden catastrophic events are not unknown in earth’s history. Large craters are evidence of past cosmic impacts and widespread layers of volcanic ash are a testimony to massive volcanic eruptions. But when did these catastrophes occur and could they have influenced human history?
Standard geological models place the largest catastrophic events far in the past. So long ago that no human being it thought to have been alive to witness the events or provide us with a written report.
On the other hand, the chronology proposed by literal-day young-earth creationists (YECs) compresses all of earth’s history into approximately 6000 years and places human beings just six days short of being alive at the very fist moment. Therefore, any catastrophic geological event in history 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 that occurred 4500 years ago that is said to have 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. Advocates of YEC flood geology usually don’t dispute that such impacts and eruptions have occurred but they disagree about when they occurred. They propose that most of these events occurred concurrently or just following the global flood. Hence, even when they recognize asteroid impacts or super-eruptions of volcanoes they frequently locate 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 including evidence that many of these events have been separated by thousands or hundreds of thousands of years.
Today, I want to draw your attention to just one example of a failure of the young-earth hypothesis to provide an explanatory framework for the observations we make of the world around us. That example is possibly the largest volcanic eruptions in earth’s history: the Toba super-eruption.
Unlike other global catastrophes that conventional geologists have concluded happened long before man could have been a witness, this massive catastrophe occurred within the time that most scientists believe people have lived on earth. When this super-eruption occurred and how it affected people alive at that time raise questions about human history that Christians, and YECs in particular, must consider as they seek to 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 May 2012 issue of Quaternary International (see references) is devoted to exploring the history and implications of the Toba volcano super-eruption. The Toba volcano is located near the center of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It doesn’t look like a volcano today because when it last erupted it completely blew its top off and then collapsed into what is called a caldera. That depression has since filled with water to form a huge (100km x 30km) lake around which people have lived for thousands of years.
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, in 1883 the Krakatoa volcano threw about 20 cubic kilometers of material into the atmosphere some of which circled the globe causing dazzling sunsets in Europe (see footnote 1 for a description). More recently, Mt. St. Helens in North America released about 1 cubic kilometer of material into the atmosphere. Therefore, the Toba eruption released at least 2800 times as much material as Mt. St. Helens. The Toba super-eruption may have been the single largest volcanic explosion in earth’s history.
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 previously stood (see the picture above of the lake that now resides in what is left of the volcano). But we are also able to measure the volcanic ash, called tuff, it left over all of southeast Asia and even most of the Indian subcontinent. Some ash layers closest to the volcano are over 1000 feet thick! Ash layers, several inches thick, from this eruption can be found as far as 2000 miles from the volcano. 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. Physical evidence of this volcanic eruption is even recorded in the Greenland Ice cores (The Toba Super-Eruption and Polar Ice Cores). All of these ash layers can readily be assigned to the Toba volcano based on unique chemical signatures.
This eruption of the Toba Volcano was massive but it wasn’t the only one. Ash layers in the geological record reveal a record of multiple explosions separated by tens of thousands of years. This succession of volcanic eruptions is a significant problem for YEC chronology but we will only focus on the most recent and largest of these explosive events.
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 the whole earth and northern hemisphere in particular by blocking sunlight resulting in lower temperatures and altered weather patterns. As a result even regions that escaped the effects of falling 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 and above the ash layers in India and Indonesia and sediment cores from the Indian Ocean. These studies reveal that 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 before during and after the eruption. Collectively, these pollen profiles tell us 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.
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? Why didn’t people living in the area record this dramatic event. Why don’t we have reports of colorful sunsets and sunrises in Europe like we did when Krakatoa blew its top?
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 Greenland and Antarctic ice cores. Scientists investigating this event still debate 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.
A 75,000 year-old event doesn’t fit within a 6000 year chronology. How might YECs accommodate this volcanic explosion in their view of earth’s history?
YECs will quibble with the radiometric derived dates but these are well established by multiple methods. However, for the sake of argument, let us set aside those dates and suppose we can’t put a specific date on these events. This would not eliminate the challenge that this volcano’s eruption creates for the young-earth view of earth’s history.
Why? First, it is evident that ash layers from this eruption found on land and in sea sediments are not very young because the are often found under tens to hundreds of feet under other sediments in many places in Asia and under 10 to 50 feet of sediments in sea floor sediment cores. You might be thinking, but don’t YECs believe that most of these sediments were the product of post-flood events like an Ice Age or run-off from the last vestiges of the end of a global flood? Yes, but this particular ash layer can’t have formed before a so-called biblical Ice Age or during a catastrophic eruption at the culmination of a global flood!
The Toba super-eruption is one of the most significant geological events that has yet to be adequately addressed by young earth creationists as they attempt to produce an alternative chronology of the history of the earth and humanity.
Why? Because we have smoking-gun evidence that these ash layers were deposited much later than these YEC events will allow.
So just what is this smoking gun evidence that every model of earth and human history must address? Human artifacts are found below and above the ash that fell from this volcanic eruption.
Toba Super-Eruption and Human Migration
The YTT (youngest Toba tuff) ash layer is particular relevant to any discussion of human origins and their spread over the earth which is why this ash layer has been studied by anthropologists so intensively the last decade.
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 sediments just below the ash layer. Furthermore, 500 miles to the north there is another site where this same ash layer occurs and there is evidence of human occupation below that ash as well.
The inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the presence of these stone tools is that people were living in India when the Toba volcano blew its top. For many years anthropologist have hotly debated who these people were that 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 to repopulate the region. However, this debate is not as important to us 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 within a young-age chronology as an event that occurred concurrently or at the end of a global flood. Here we have an example of a volcano that must have obliterated nearly all life on Sumatra and likely deforested most of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Massive deposits from air-borne ash would have killed many of the animals in this entire region.
Again, YECs can’t explain this as happening while Noah and his family were safe inside the Ark. The evidence that humans occupied sites just before this massive volcanic eruption necessitates that this volcano had to have blown its top after people had migrated from the Ark to India. In the YEC chronology this would place this catastrophic even no more than 4000 years ago!
Why only 4000 year ago? Because most creationists believe that the Flood occurred 4350 years ago and then after the Flood the descendants of Noah lived in Middle East were they then all gathered together at Babel several hundred years after the Flood. The first people to reach India would have been descendants of the people at Babel. Therefore, these stone tools could not have been dropped at this location in India until after people had dispersed there from Babel. This sets the minimum age of this catastrophe at no more than 4000 years ago in the YEC chronology. This volcano could not have destroyed Sumatra until well after the dispersal of peoples from Babel.
How have YECs responded to the evidence of this catastrophe and how have they accommodated in their timeline?
They haven’t. They have ignored what may have been the largest single volcanic explosion in history. I have found only one reference in the YEC literature that does anything but mention the Toba super-eruption in passing such as in comparisons with the size of this volcanic explosion with respect to others like Mt. St. Helens.
One article (see references) by Brian Thomas at ICR mentions Toba in the context of speculating about human technological capacities in the past, referenced the presence of artifacts below the Toba ash layers as evidence that the creators of these artifacts were surely fully human and not some other hominid species. His interest was to discount the existence of pre-Adamites.
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 the artifacts creators. Ironically, by insisting that 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 or where made by non-human apes.
There is so much more that could be said about this volcano and how it effected the landscape and climate of the world 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 leaves 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 associated with 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 by anyone in any form of written historical record? When it comes to human origins, I simply see no answers to these questions for anyone who wishes to compress these events into a young-earth chronology.
Young-earth creationists continue to ignore the Toba super-eruption
I first wrote about this catastrophic historical event and the challenge it presents to the young-earth paradigm in 2012. The response? Silence. YEC authors need to feel they need to respond to me but the should surely be interested in incorporating such well-known events into their flood geology model of the history of the earth. Simply ignoring evidence won’t make their models stronger? The artifacts found underneath the Toba ash can’t be ignored forever. Ken Ham and others wonder why their followers become disillusioned with young earth creationism when they learn more about geology and biology. It is because students quickly learn about events such as Toba and they find themselves with a flood geology model that is helpless to provide them with a means of explaining the new things they learn.
References, Sources and Interesting Links:
This is a link to the Article index for the May 2012 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
A 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.