The Terrifying History of the Phlegraean Fields Supervolcano: Could It Have Led to the Extinction of Neanderthals?

2024-04-14 02:39:35

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    The supervolcano of the Phlegraean Fields causes fear with endless earthquakes. Scientists believe it may have caused the extinction of Neanderthals during an Ice Age eruption.

    Pozzuoli – Not a day goes by when the earth doesn’t shake beneath the supervolcano of the Phlegraean Fields in southern Italy. On Wednesday (April 10), over 60 tremors were recorded within 24 hours. Scientists assume that the supervolcano will erupt sooner or later. It could happen at any time. A look at the hundreds of thousands of years of history of the crater field shows what colossal catastrophes the Phlegraean fields can cause.

    Monte Nuovo is the crater of the last eruption of the Phlegraean Fields © Nino Rossi/Facebook

    The sunsets in what is now Germany were very romantic 39,500 years ago: for years, the central star of our planetary system said goodbye every day in a deep red dusk. But temperatures were bitterly cold as the last Neanderthals desperately searched for food in Central Europe. A gigantic volcanic eruption had obscured the sun 1,000 kilometers further south. And ensured that the Neanderthals finally died out. At least some paleontologists are convinced of this.

    Supervolcano eruption in the Ice Age: Firestorm destroyed all life within a radius of 70 kilometers

    At that time, the supervolcano of the Phlegraean Fields, where the port city of Pozzuoli is now located, erupted in one of the largest volcanic eruptions in earth’s history. 80 to 150 cubic kilometers of lava, pumice stones and ash were released into the open air. A huge crater, up to 20 kilometers wide, was created. Pyroclastic flows of 700 degree hot gas and ash destroyed all life within a radius of 70 kilometers.

    On the opposite bay of the Gulf of Naples, 50 meter high layers of tuff were deposited on the coast near Sorrento, 30 kilometers away. Scientists call the deposits Campanian Ignimbrite, named after the region of Campania with the capital Naples, where the Phlegraean Fields are located, and the Latin word for “rain of fire.”

    The Phlegraean Fields supervolcano is thought to have accelerated the extinction of the Neanderthals.The replica of a Neanderthal in the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann. © Federico Gambarini

    The ash from the gigantic volcanic eruption reached Cyrenaica in Libya and the north of Egypt, traveled to Syria, Turkey, Georgia, the south of Russia and Kazakhstan and fell to the ground there. But there were even finer aerosols that spread through the atmosphere and obscured the sun. The cooling in this so-called “volcanic winter” was strongest in Eastern Europe and Asia, but also in Western Europe. Temperatures fell by two to four degrees over one or two years.

    The volcanic ash was transported from Italy to Kazakhstan and Siberia

    A team of researchers led by Benjamin Black from the University of California at Berkeley published a study in the journal in 2015 Geology, according to which the supervolcano could have brought about the end of the Neanderthals with a volcanic winter. Russian scientists came to a similar conclusion in 2023. The Neanderthal population had already declined sharply 39,500 years ago. The Neanderthals had the problem that their opponents of the genus Homo Sapiens, the ancestors of modern humans, simply reproduced faster. Then came the environmental stress caused by the Phlegraean fields.

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    “We find that the peak of cooling and acid deposition lasted one to two years and that the greatest cooling bypassed hominin population centers in western Europe,” it says. The scientists do have one caveat: “We come to the conclusion that the environmental impact of the Campanian ignimbrite eruption alone was not sufficient to explain the final demise of the Neanderthals in Europe.”

    It got up to four degrees colder in Central Europe for years

    But: “Nevertheless, the significant cooling of the volcano in the years immediately following the eruption may have impaired the viability of already precarious populations and influenced many aspects of the daily life of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans.” The Neanderthals hunted reindeer, wild horses or bison and collected edible ones Plants, berries and roots. Colder climates are likely to have reduced the food supply. The cold was also a major stress factor without shelter. They lived in caves or primitive tents.

    Pinatubo is the worst volcanic eruption in the world in 150 years.The 1991 gigangtic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines was small compared to that of the Phlegraean fields 39,500 years ago. © IMAGO

    “This catastrophe not only drastically destroyed the ecological niches of Neanderthal populations, but also caused their physical extinction,” said researchers Liubov Golovanova and Vladimir Doronichev from the ANO Laboratory for Prehistoric Research in Saint Petersburg after examining volcanic ash traces in a Neanderthal cave in the Caucasus. The researchers found greatly reduced pollen concentrations – signs of a dramatic shift to a cooler and drier climate. Another indication: in the Mezmaiskaya Cave, all Neanderthal traces end with the ash layer.

    Researchers fear another eruption of the supervolcano in Italy at any time

    An eruption of the Phlegraean Fields is also feared today. The Neapolitan volcanologist Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo only warned in March of a potentially imminent huge eruption. Researchers from University College London and Italy’s National Research Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) concluded in a study last year: The Phlegraean fields have become weaker and more prone to cracking, making an eruption more likely.

    The supervolcano erupted devastatingly around 29,000 and again 15,000 years ago. Since then, dozens of smaller eruptions have occurred in the caldera, the most recent being Monte Nuovo near Pozzuoli in 1538.

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