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Concept: Geologic time scale


New ages for flowstone, sediments and fossil bones from the Dinaledi Chamber are presented. We combined optically stimulated luminescence dating of sediments with U-Th and palaeomagnetic analyses of flowstones to establish that all sediments containing Homo naledi fossils can be allocated to a single stratigraphic entity (sub-unit 3b), interpreted to be deposited between 236 ka and 414 ka. This result has been confirmed independently by dating three H. naledi teeth with combined U-series and electron spin resonance (US-ESR) dating. Two dating scenarios for the fossils were tested by varying the assumed levels of (222)Rn loss in the encasing sediments: a maximum age scenario provides an average age for the two least altered fossil teeth of 253 +82/-70 ka, whilst a minimum age scenario yields an average age of 200 +70/-61 ka. We consider the maximum age scenario to more closely reflect conditions in the cave, and therefore, the true age of the fossils. By combining the US-ESR maximum age estimate obtained from the teeth, with the U-Th age for the oldest flowstone overlying Homo naledi fossils, we have constrained the depositional age of Homo naledi to a period between 236 ka and 335 ka. These age results demonstrate that a morphologically primitive hominin, Homo naledi, survived into the later parts of the Pleistocene in Africa, and indicate a much younger age for the Homo naledi fossils than have previously been hypothesized based on their morphology.

Concepts: Electron, Spin, Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Geology, Fossil, Paleontology, Geologic time scale


Human modification of natural landscapes has influenced surface processes in many settings on Earth. Quantitative data comparing the distribution and behavior of geologic phenomena before and after human arrival are sparse but urgently required to evaluate possible anthropogenic influences on geologic hazards. We conduct field and imagery-based mapping, statistical analysis, and numerical modeling of rockfall boulders triggered by the fatal 2011 Christchurch earthquakes (n = 285) and newly identified prehistoric (Holocene and Pleistocene) boulders (n = 1049). Prehistoric and modern boulders are lithologically equivalent, derived from the same source cliff, and yield consistent power-law frequency-volume distributions. However, a significant population of modern boulders (n = 26) traveled farther downslope (>150 m) than their most-traveled prehistoric counterparts, causing extensive damage to residential dwellings at the foot of the hillslope. Replication of prehistoric boulder distributions using three-dimensional rigid-body numerical models that incorporate lidar-derived digital topography and realistic boulder trajectories and volumes requires the application of a drag coefficient, attributed to moderate to dense slope vegetation, to account for their spatial distribution. Incorporating a spatially variable native forest into the models successfully predicts prehistoric rockfall distributions. Radiocarbon dating provides evidence for 17th to early 20th century deforestation at the study site during Polynesian and European colonization and after emplacement of prehistoric rockfall. Anthropocene deforestation enabled modern rockfalls to exceed the limits of their prehistoric predecessors, highlighting a shift in the geologic expression of rockfalls due to anthropogenic activity. Reforestation of hillslopes by mature native vegetation could help reduce future rockfall hazard.

Concepts: Human, Erosion, Distribution, 20th century, Holocene, Global warming, Geologic time scale, Boulder


Deciphering erosion rates over geologic time is fundamental for understanding the interplay between climate, tectonic, and erosional processes. Existing techniques integrate erosion over different time scales, and direct comparison of such rates is routinely done in earth science. On the basis of a global compilation, we show that erosion rate estimates in glaciated landscapes may be affected by a systematic averaging bias that produces higher estimated erosion rates toward the present, which do not reflect straightforward changes in erosion rates through time. This trend can result from a heavy-tailed distribution of erosional hiatuses (that is, time periods where no or relatively slow erosion occurs). We argue that such a distribution can result from the intermittency of erosional processes in glaciated landscapes that are tightly coupled to climate variability from decadal to millennial time scales. In contrast, we find no evidence for a time scale bias in spatially averaged erosion rates of landscapes dominated by river incision. We discuss the implications of our findings in the context of the proposed coupling between climate and tectonics, and interpreting erosion rate estimates with different averaging time scales through geologic time.

Concepts: Present, Time, Earth, Glacier, Erosion, Geomorphology, Geologic time scale, Palynology


Subaerial endolithic systems of the current extreme environments on Earth provide exclusive insight into emergence and development of soils in the Precambrian when due to various stresses on the surfaces of hard rocks the cryptic niches inside them were much more plausible habitats for organisms than epilithic ones. Using an actualistic approach we demonstrate that transformation of silicate rocks by endolithic organisms is one of the possible pathways for the beginning of soils on Earth. This process led to the formation of soil-like bodies on rocks in situ and contributed to the raise of complexity in subaerial geosystems. Endolithic systems of East Antarctica lack the noise from vascular plants and are among the best available natural models to explore organo-mineral interactions of a very old “phylogenetic age” (cyanobacteria-to-mineral, fungi-to-mineral, lichen-to-mineral). On the basis of our case study from East Antarctica we demonstrate that relatively simple endolithic systems of microbial and/or cryptogamic origin that exist and replicate on Earth over geological time scales employ the principles of organic matter stabilization strikingly similar to those known for modern full-scale soils of various climates.

Concepts: Plant, Earth, Soil, Geology, Complex system, Organic matter, Geomorphology, Geologic time scale


Human activity is leaving a pervasive and persistent signature on Earth. Vigorous debate continues about whether this warrants recognition as a new geologic time unit known as the Anthropocene. We review anthropogenic markers of functional changes in the Earth system through the stratigraphic record. The appearance of manufactured materials in sediments, including aluminum, plastics, and concrete, coincides with global spikes in fallout radionuclides and particulates from fossil fuel combustion. Carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus cycles have been substantially modified over the past century. Rates of sea-level rise and the extent of human perturbation of the climate system exceed Late Holocene changes. Biotic changes include species invasions worldwide and accelerating rates of extinction. These combined signals render the Anthropocene stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene and earlier epochs.

Concepts: Oxygen, Earth, Hydrogen, Climate change, Geology, Paleontology, Global warming, Geologic time scale


Anthropogenic activity is now recognised as having profoundly and permanently altered the Earth system, suggesting we have entered a human-dominated geological epoch, the ‘Anthropocene’. To formally define the onset of the Anthropocene, a synchronous global signature within geological-forming materials is required. Here we report a series of precisely-dated tree-ring records from Campbell Island (Southern Ocean) that capture peak atmospheric radiocarbon (14C) resulting from Northern Hemisphere-dominated thermonuclear bomb tests during the 1950s and 1960s. The only alien tree on the island, a Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), allows us to seasonally-resolve Southern Hemisphere atmospheric14C, demonstrating the ‘bomb peak’ in this remote and pristine location occurred in the last-quarter of 1965 (October-December), coincident with the broader changes associated with the post-World War II ‘Great Acceleration’ in industrial capacity and consumption. Our findings provide a precisely-resolved potential Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) or ‘golden spike’, marking the onset of the Anthropocene Epoch.

Concepts: Earth, Neutron, Pacific Ocean, Australia, Spruce, Picea sitchensis, Geologic time scale, Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point


Time is divided by geologists according to marked shifts in Earth’s state. Recent global environmental changes suggest that Earth may have entered a new human-dominated geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Here we review the historical genesis of the idea and assess anthropogenic signatures in the geological record against the formal requirements for the recognition of a new epoch. The evidence suggests that of the various proposed dates two do appear to conform to the criteria to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene: 1610 and 1964. The formal establishment of an Anthropocene Epoch would mark a fundamental change in the relationship between humans and the Earth system.

Concepts: Earth, Geography, Geology, Aristotle, Paleontology, Holocene, Modular arithmetic, Geologic time scale


The ca. 3.48 Ga Dresser Formation, Pilbara Craton, Western Australia, is well known for hosting some of Earth’s earliest convincing evidence of life (stromatolites, fractionated sulfur/carbon isotopes, microfossils) within a dynamic, low-eruptive volcanic caldera affected by voluminous hydrothermal fluid circulation. However, missing from the caldera model were surface manifestations of the volcanic-hydrothermal system (hot springs, geysers) and their unequivocal link with life. Here we present new discoveries of hot spring deposits including geyserite, sinter terracettes and mineralized remnants of hot spring pools/vents, all of which preserve a suite of microbial biosignatures indicative of the earliest life on land. These include stromatolites, newly observed microbial palisade fabric and gas bubbles preserved in inferred mineralized, exopolymeric substance. These findings extend the known geological record of inhabited terrestrial hot springs on Earth by ∼3 billion years and offer an analogue in the search for potential fossil life in ancient Martian hot springs.

Concepts: Water, Western Australia, Hydrothermal vent, Volcano, Spring, Hot spring, Geyser, Geologic time scale


Oxygen-isotope compositions of fossilised planktonic and benthic foraminifera tests are used as proxies for surface- and deep-ocean paleotemperatures, providing a continuous benthic record for the past 115 Ma. However, visually imperceptible processes can alter these proxies during sediment burial. Here, we investigate the diffusion-controlled re-equilibration process with experiments exposing foraminifera tests to elevated pressures and temperatures in isotopically heavy artificial seawater (H2(18)O), followed by scanning electron microscopy and quantitative NanoSIMS imaging: oxygen-isotope compositions changed heterogeneously at submicrometer length scales without any observable modifications of the test ultrastructures. In parallel, numerical modelling of diffusion during burial shows that oxygen-isotope re-equilibration of fossil foraminifera tests can cause significant overestimations of ocean paleotemperatures on a time scale of 10(7) years under natural conditions. Our results suggest that the late Cretaceous and Paleogene deep-ocean and high-latitude surface-ocean temperatures were significantly lower than is generally accepted, thereby explaining the paradox of the low equator-to-pole surface-ocean thermal gradient inferred for these periods.

Concepts: Electron, Scanning electron microscope, Cretaceous, Aquatic ecology, Fossil, Dinosaur, Foraminifera, Geologic time scale


Muscle tissue is a fundamentally eumetazoan attribute. The oldest evidence for fossilized muscular tissue before the Early Cambrian has hitherto remained moot, being reliant upon indirect evidence in the form of Late Ediacaran ichnofossils. We here report a candidate muscle-bearing organism, Haootia quadriformis n. gen., n. sp., from approximately 560 Ma strata in Newfoundland, Canada. This taxon exhibits sediment moulds of twisted, superimposed fibrous bundles arranged quadrilaterally, extending into four prominent bifurcating corner branches. Haootia is distinct from all previously published contemporaneous Ediacaran macrofossils in its symmetrically fibrous, rather than frondose, architecture. Its bundled fibres, morphology, and taphonomy compare well with the muscle fibres of fossil and extant Cnidaria, particularly the benthic Staurozoa. Haootia quadriformis thus potentially provides the earliest body fossil evidence for both metazoan musculature, and for Eumetazoa, in the geological record.

Concepts: Animal, Muscle, Cardiac muscle, Glycogen, Muscular system, Fossil, Geologic time scale, Cambrian