Monday Eruption Update: Calm at Etna and Katla, evacuations at Lokon-Empung

Things are going to be getting a little hectic for me for the next few days as I get ready for my field/lab season in California (which starts Wednesday). I have just enough time to catch up on a few things that are happening/happened over the last few days.


Italy: Over the weekend, we saw a brief eruptive episode at Etna - you can check out some of the details on the Osservatio Etneo website (thanks to Dr. Boris Behncke). This new eruptive activity sent ash around parts of Sicily after intense fountaining (see top left) in the southeast crater. Be sure to check out some of the great video (with a strange article), from various sources along with some excellent images and a report from Etna via Volcano Discovery.

Iceland: We also saw a small jokulhlaup from Katla over the weekend that got a lot of people very worked up for sure. The unrest at the Icelandic volcano seems to have ended for the time being, but a close watch will be kept on Katla. The Icelandic Met Office has posted a brief summary of the flood that swept away a bridge at Múlakvísl and the Ring Road will likely be disrupted for months. However, the question of whether the flood was related to a very small eruption is still being explored (Icelandic). Be sure to check out the cool video of the flight over Katla after the jokulhlaup that shows the early stages of some of the 50-meter deep collapse structures (see below) that have appeared on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.

 

50-meter deep collapse features seen on the ice cap on Katla after the July 9, 2011 jokulhlaup.

Indonesia: This is not a good week to be in a country that starts with "I" if you don't like volcanoes (look out Iran). Last week we saw a small eruption at Soputan in Indonesia and today Indonesian officials placed Lokon (a twin volcano along with Empung) on highest alert for an impending eruption. A 3.5-km evacuation zone has been set up around the volcano to keep tourists and locals out of harm's way - but a stunning 28,000 people live within that exclusion zone. Lokon-Empung is only 20 km from the capitol of North Sulawesi, Manando. The volcano produced ~0.5 km / ~1600 foot ash plumes over the weekend and the volcano has been producing small plumes throughout most of 2011 so far in what were thought to be phreatic explosions. The last eruption at Lokon-Empung was in 2003 and the volcano has had several VEI 2-3 eruptions over the last 25 years.

Top left: A thermal image of the eruption at Etna on July 9, 2011.

{Special thanks to all the Eruptions readers who provided links and images in this post.}

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.