Spectacular images and video of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle eruption in Chile

I am beginning to think the volcanoes plan it this way, but what is up with two of the biggest eruptions of 2011 falling on the weekend? Definitely makes it more difficult for me to keep up with all the action, that is for sure.


Saturday we saw a large eruption from Puyehue-Cordón Caulle (top left) in central Chile - the first major eruption of the volcano in 51 years. The ash plume from the volcano was quite spectacular, soaring over the clouds and rapidly spreading eastward over Argentina to reach the Atlantic. Some towns near the volcano, including the resort town of Bariloche, saw some significant ash fall from the volcano as well and a state of emergency remains in place for the area. The effects of the ash (video) were seen in many parts of Chile and Argentina, so flight disruptions were also widespread due to the eruption. This ash is not only a hazard to air and water, but also could lead to lahars - and the Chilean government has evacuated some people near the volcano for just such a fear. Some of the latest reports suggest the activity at the volcano has waned significantly, but with any eruption this size, this could change rapidly. Right now, very little of the plume appears in the satellite images, suggesting the volcano is calmer. So far, thousands of people have been evacuated from the areas around the volcano.

The ash plume from the June 4, 2011 eruption of Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, Chile. Click here to see a larger version.

The eruption itself occurred northeast of the vents that were active during the 1960 eruption - if you look at the geologic map of the volcanic complex, you might notice that little half-circles are marked northeast of the red area that demarcates the 1960 activity. These half-circles are partially buried craters of previous eruptions, suggesting that this is not an entirely new center of activity. This type of activity at Puyehue-Cordón Caulle (and a lot of the central Andes) is not atypical - large explosive eruptions from subsidiary vents on larger volcanoes are known at Quizapu (Chile) and Hauynaputina (Peru) (and likely more). If you're interested in the relationship between the 1960 eruption and the major Chilean earthquake of that same year, check out this article from the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. I'm sure that many people will be looking to see if there is any connection between this eruption of Puyehue-Cordon Caulle and the large Chilean earthquake of 2010

The plume from Puyehue-Cordón Caulle seen on June 4, 2011 from a flight from Puerto Montt to Santiago. Click here to see the original.

There is a bevy of amazing images and video of the eruption, not surprisingly. This great video of the eruption plume shows the billowing grey-tan ash roaring out of the vent. You can get a sense of the energy of the eruption by looking at the video and then watching the animated GIF of the ash plume starting and spreading over southern South America over the course of the weekend (along with it, lots of sulfur dioxide). POVI has put together a great array of images from the eruption showing the size of the plume from the eruption as well. As it seems for any eruption these days, people love images of volcanic eruptions and lightning - and Puyehue-Cordón  Caulle was no slouch in that. In this BBC collection, you can see some of the golf ball-sized pumice that fell in parts of Argentina near the volcano - again, showing just how powerful this eruption is (video).

{Special thanks, as usual, to all the Eruptions readers who provided images and links for 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.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

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.