The Great Human Extinction Event: Stone Age Catastrophe

In current academia, students no longer focus on the great catastrophes of history. These cataclysms are important because they place human suffering in context and set the standards of resiliency our ancestors exhibited, and resiliency that may one day be expected of us. The Great Human Extinction Event was the first catastrophe. About 70,000 years ago a super volcano erupted in what is now Lake Toba, Indonesia. This eruption may have reduced the human population to less than 10,000. Michael R. Rampino & Stanley H. Ambrose, Volcanic Winter in the Garden of Eden: The Toba Supereruption and the Late Pleistocene Human Population Crash, 345 71 (2000). Professor Henry Harpending, professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, believes that after the Toba eruption humanity went nearly completely extinct, with a population of less than 500 breeding females or alternatively, a total population of 40 individuals for a 200-year period. Id, at 78. This volcanic eruption was so powerful that it sent a dust cloud around the world that blocked out the sun and persisted for approximately 7.5–8 years after the eruption. Id, at 80. The explosion released between 2000km3 and 3000km3 of magma from the earth’s crust. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory (last visited Apr. 29, 2017). The survival instincts and intelligence of a very small population of homo sapiens saved our species. The 99% of the human population that died out probably suffered and died slowly from starvation, heavy metal poisoning from the ash, and exhaustion.

In order to understand the scale of the disaster and suffering of our ancestors the human society that existed contemporaneously with the Toba eruption must be examined. At the time of the Toba eruption, 70,000 years ago, ancient homo sapiens were hunter gatherers, who had relatively complex linguistic skills, and had complex religious practices. See generally, Philip Lieberman, Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior (Harvard Univ. Press 1991). Ancient humans probably ritualistically buried their dead, wore body paint, and worshiped stone idols. By this time humans had learned to use fire, and to domesticate dogs. Some anthropologists believe that social stratification may have existed, with tribal chieftains, or shamans. See generally, Id. It is also generally believed that men hunted and searched for carrion, while women cared for children, gathered building materials, and scavenged for edible plants. Evidence suggests that before the Toba eruption humans had not migrated out of Africa. Modern Humans Did Not Settle in Asia Before Eruption of Sumatra Volcano 74,000 Years Ago, Study Finds, Sci. Daily, June 11, 2013 at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130611084105.htm (last visited Apr. 29, 2017). Since no records exist of this prehistoric event, I have taken the liberty of imagining the suffering and misery of our ancestors in the form of a short story. As you read, please consider the types of things you complain about in your everyday life in comparison to the protagonist and reflect.

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Imagine that you are a member of a primitive African human tribe. You live in a wild forest in east Africa, in an area that would later come to be known as Kenya. The territory occupied by your tribe is bustling with wildlife. Giant crocodiles and hippopotamus patrol the river, while forest elephants, gorillas, leopards can be found all over the mountains. Giant buffalo are seen grazing in all habitats. Your tribe has cleared an area on the forest floor but has left massive trees to give cover from the rain. Your tribe lives in stick huts that can be moved from place to place when game becomes scarce, however, lately the shaman and chief have agreed that the earth is most fertile in this area and the hunt has been prosperous. Ample fruit can be found from the vines and the river always attracts wild animals, so hunters never come back empty handed. The rainy season has not yet come, so the game always fight over the water, but there is enough to go around. The hippos even allow the women to fill their skins full of water.

One morning, as you wake from a restful night’s sleep you look east, towards the rising sun, and you see the sky has turned an angry blood red. In a panic you run to see if you can find the shaman. As you pass some of your sleeping tribe members you find the shaman throwing bones and staring into the fire to read the flames. The shaman tells you that the red sky is an omen of death to come and that the tribe must move away from the evil sky. The shaman then wakes the tribe with a great blow of his ram horn. He addresses all members of the tribe and tells them that they must move west, that a great evil from the sky is about to befall everyone because the sun lion has finally killed and torn the throat from the moon buffalo.

Quickly, everyone packs their tools into their animal leather sacks. Some are panicking while others do not believe the shaman’s prediction and do not want to leave. Some sacrifice their pet dogs to the sun lion to quench its blood thirst, hoping that it will stop the evil from harming them. The warriors and hunters gather all of the smoked meat they can carry in their sacks. The shaman told the hunters that there would be a great famine after he saw the sky evil. If the shaman is right, your tribe is prepared. Because your recent home had caves with great stones of salt your tribe could preserve large amounts of meat and hide from the elephant and warthog hunts by smoking the meat, salting it, and mixing it with a fruit paste.

Nobody went hungry in your tribe. The most powerful hunters even sported fat bellies over their thickly muscled and scarred bodies. The women were the healthiest though, as weighed the most. As the shaman said, the fertile woman was holy. The fertile mothers got the first meat when game was harvested and fresh. The mothers always ate well and had the cleanest water. The hunters and shaman did all they could to make sure the fertile mothers did not need to work and could bring forth more members of the tribe.

The shaman called a tribal gathering after everyone had pulled together their huts, food, and belongings. He called for the youngest virgin from the family of the chief to walk towards his altar. With the holy fire to his right and the altar to his left the shaman cast his bones. He looked grimly at the gathered crowd and tells them that a great famine will soon come, that the tribe must travel west, away from the great sky evil. He commands the virgin to ascend the altar, tells two hunters to hold her arms to the stone. The shaman takes his black stone axe, and opens the virgin’s throat. The shaman presses his lips to the wound and drinks deep. The blood, he says, pleased the sun lion so that he would have favor on the tribe, and if we killed and preserved enough game, that we would outlast the famine. The shaman also commands that elephant and hippo be hunted on the way west, and thick cloaks be made of the hides. The shaman foretells of a great cold that would come, as the sun lion would be eating the moon buffalo and would not have time to warm the sky for a very long age. Certain of the shaman, you have faith in his prophecy. You wonder if your tribe shares your faith.

Weeks after the sun lion killed the moon buffalo, the sky lion has not appeared again. The sky remains thick with black dust that rains on every animal and water source, making it poison to drink and eat. Only after water is seeped through sand can your tribe members drink it. But, because the hunters of your tribe killed three elephants the day before, you have had a great amount of blood to drink. The blood was the most important. It makes you strong. The elephant meat is not covered in the black dust, and your tribe brings it to a cave to shelter it from the dust.

The difference between day and night is hard to tell. The day is only marginally brighter than the night. Cold winds have begun to swirl. You are now very thankful that the shaman commanded that the hunters tan elephant hides for clothing. Although the wind is crisp, the thick leather makes it more bearable.

Six months after the sun lion killed the moon buffalo, the sun lion has still not reappeared and the dust continues to fall from the sky. The wind has become cold permanently. You do not remember the last time you were warm, except for by the fire. You shiver yourself awake most nights. Most of the tribe is dead. They drank poison water that was clouded with the evil dust. You will only drink the water that you sift between the dirt or sand and the lakes and rivers. Even though the water is full of dirt and sand it does not have the evil dust inside it. The dust from the sun lion killing the moon buffalo. Fortunately for your tribe, the elephant meat has endured. The shaman will not allow anyone to eat more than one piece at a time. He says the sun lion will come again, but not now or even the next lunar month. One child tried to steal a piece of the elephant pemmican from the stash when the hunters slept. He was caught, brought to the shaman’s new altar, and sacrificed to the sky lion so that he may bring us favor. That night you ate the boy’s flesh. It was the first fresh meat you had eaten since we left our home. You live in a place where all of the plants are dead and everything around us is dying. The black evil dust chokes the life from everything but the crocodiles, snakes, and frogs. All the animals that drink the poison water die, except the crocodiles. The animal’s corpses can be found rotting by the side of the water, infested with maggots and flies. Fetching water from holes that are dug next to the water source is fraught with peril. You never know when a crocodile will suddenly attack from under the black, viscous water and drag you under. You always go to the water with a spear, but the crocodile is an invincible monster from the top. You have no chance to stop them from killing you. You can only hope the sun lion accepts the sacrifice and spares what little remains of your tribe.

One year after the sun lion killed moon buffalo, the dust has still not stopped raining. Nothing grows. The earth is barren. The night is freezing cold. At least all of the dead wood is good for burning. You look into the fire in the middle of the camp to see if you can divine a vision, like the shaman. You cannot. Some months ago, you helped the hunters tan a rotting hippo hide to make a new, thicker cloak. Fortunately, the hide did not completely rot, you used enough brain, smoke, and salt in the tan and the skin only rotted a little. The cloak is still very warm. The hunters were very successful in the past, and the food stocks are still swollen with preserved meat. But some of the meat has started to rot. One member of the tribe decided to try a piece of meat that had turned green and began to stink of rot. He made brown water from his backside until the brown water turned red and he died, screaming and torquing his limbs in pain. Nothing was left for the hunters to hunt. All of the game animals were dead. All of the trees were dead. The world had become a graveyard without the moon buffalo’s fertility and the sun lion’s favor. You wonder if the sun lion and moon buffalo will ever come back. All of the members of the tribe that had any fat on them before the journey started have long since lost the fat. The children and women are gaunt and frail. Many died. Only the largest and fattest at the outset of the journey still lived and maintained any sort of strength. Rituals and sacrifices by the shaman did not please the sun lion and make him show his face again. The women were not even fertile anymore. They were too weak to give rise to their moon blood. Only the moon buffalo could bring that. You hang your head in despair. The elephant meat is either rotten or gone. The only fresh meat comes from the shaman’s weekly human sacrifices. The only clean water is blood. Only dust and despair remain.

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As we can see from this imagining, the catastrophic Toba eruption would have horrifically killed off most of the human population with poisonous ash, freezing cold weather, and famine. Only the most fortunate could have preserved enough meat and dried fruit to survive the cataclysm. I believe that out of desperation, tribes turned to human sacrifice and cannibalism. This was perhaps, humanity’s darkest hour. If we could travel back in time and listen to the story of the 500 women who survived the Toba eruption we would truly travel into the heart of darkness. It is miraculous that humans survived the Toba eruption, considering that for approximately 8 years the sky was blackened with ash and the sun never rose. The 500 women that survived managed to avoid consuming enough poisonous ash to die and still managed to have offspring after the sky cleared and plants began to grow again must have either been extremely lucky or geniuses.

Fortunately, if a super volcano ever erupts again, with the advent of modern technology we can filter water, farm indoors with fake sunlight, and raise livestock. The adversity those brave primitive humans faced will never be seen by our species again. The stark difference between the trivial complaints of the modern college student; and the cataclysm and sacrifices that our ancestors suffered to perpetuate our species are clearly illustrated in this case. I will continue this series next week with a great catastrophe from the dawn of civilization, the Deluge.