July 25, 2012

"Mostly harmless": the Campanian Ignimbrite supervolcano that could not kill Neanderthals

Or mostly not. Neither Neanderthals nor Homo sapiens in fact: in most affected archaeological sites there is continuity between under and above the tephra layer. The main exception being the Aurignacian site of Serino, just outside the supervolcano.

John Lowe et al., Volcanic ash layers illuminate the resilience of Neanderthals and early modern humans to natural hazards. PNAS 2012. Pay per view (for six months or depending on continent of reader) ··> EP link [DOI:

From Fig. 2
Curved line: area where the tephra layer is preserved
CF: eruption site (Campi Flegrei)
Archaeological and paleolclimatic sites: Fr, Franchthi; GP, Golema Pesht; HF, Haua Fteah; Kl, Klissoura; Ko, Kozarnika; LC-21, EC-MAST2 PALAEO-FLUX cruise 1995, “Long Core 21”; TP, Tenaghi Philippon; TT, Tabula Traiana; 1, Serino; 2, Castelcivita; 3, Cavallo; 4, Uluzzo; 5, Uluzzo C; 6, Bernardini; 7, Crvena Stijina; 8, Oase; 9, Kostenki 14.

The authors argue that the colonization of Europe by Homo sapiens was already clearly under way when the CI eruption happened c. 40 Ka. BP (C14). Many sites surely attributable to Homo sapiens (Aurignacoid industries, which are associated to our species in Palestine since c. 55 Ka. ago) existed in many parts of Europe already, as well as in Libya (Haua Fteah) where the related Dabban industries also pre-date the CI layer.

But regarding any possible direct impact of the supervolcano on human populations of either species, the impact was very limited, at least directly:

With respect to the impacts on humans of the CI eruption, there must have been different outcomes in areas proximal or distal to the volcanic source. Proximal sites such as Serino, for example, located only ∼50 km east of the Campi Flegrei would have felt the full impact, and it is, therefore, likely that populations here were devastated; the early Aurignacian at Serino is capped by a thick CI ash layer, with no evidence of subsequent site reoccupation. Most of our newly identified CI records, however, are from sites considerably more distal from Campania, where the effects are likely to have been less severe; here, we see no evidence of continental-scale, long-term impact on hominin species.
But for Neanderthals, we were much more of a threat than any natural catastrophe, it seems:

Our results indicate that Neanderthal extinction in Europe was not associated with the CI eruption. Furthermore, in view of the continuous records of human occupation over the MP to UP transition preserved at Klissoura, Kozarnika, Tabula Traiana, and Golema Pesht, we also question the posited scale of the impact of HE4 cooling on Neanderthal demise. AMHs also seem to have been widespread throughout much of Europe before the CI eruption; thus, Neanderthal and AMH population interactions must have occurred before 40 ka B.P. Given the spatially complex nature of the Neanderthal and AMH evidence listed here, there may have been considerable variability in the timing of such encounters across Eastern Europe and Italy. Our evidence indicates that, on a continental scale, modern humans were a greater competitive threat to indigenous populations than the largest known volcanic eruption in Europe, even if combined with the deleterious effects of climatic cooling. We propose that small population numbers and high mobility may have initially saved the Neanderthals but that they were ultimately outperformed in this capacity by AMHs.

Special thanks to Eurlologist.

Craters apparent in this satellite image of the Campi Flegrei, near Naples

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