Early human migrations in southern Africa

Comparing the DNA profiles of living people who are indigenous to different parts of the world has achieved a lot as regards tracing the migrations of their ancestors and amalgamations between and separations from different genetic groups along the way. Most such analyses have centred on alleles in DNA from mitochondria (maternal) and Y chromosomes (paternal), and depend on the assumption that rates of mutation (specifically those that have neither negative nor positive outcomes) in both remain constant over tens of thousand years and genetic intermixing through reproduction. Both provide plausible hypotheses of where migrations began, the approximate route that they took and the timing of both departures from and arrival at different locations en route. Most studies have focused on the ‘Out of Africa’ migration, which began, according to the latest data, around 80 ka ago. Arrival times at various locations differ considerably, from around 60 ka for the indigenous populations of Australia and New Guinea, roughly 40 ka for Europe and ~12 ka for the Americas. Yet an often overlooked factor is that not all migrating groups have descendants that are alive today. For instance, remains of anatomically modern humans (AMH)have been found in sediments in the Levant as old as 177 ka (see: Earliest departure of modern humans from Africa, January 2018), and between 170 to 210 ka in southern Greece (See: Out of Africa: The earliest modern human to leave). Neither have yielded ancient DNA, yet nor are their arrival times compatible with the ‘route mapping’ provided by genetic studies of living people. Such groups became extinct and left no traceable descendants, and there were probably many more awaiting discovery. Maybe these mysteries will be penetrated by DNA from the ancient bones, should that prove possible.

The recorded history of AMH within Africa began around 286 to 315 ka in Morocco (see: Origin of anatomically modern humans, June 2017) and their evolutionary development may have spanned much of the continent, judging by previously discovered fossils in Ethiopia and South Africa that are older than 200 ka. Again, ancient DNA has not been extracted from the oldest fossils; nor is that likely to be possible because the double helix breaks down quickly in hot and humid climates. Genetic data from living Africans are growing quickly. An additional 198 African mtDNA genomes reported recently have pushed up the total available for analysis, the bulk of them being from eastern and southern Africa (Chan, E.K.F. and 11 others 2019. Human origins in a southern African palaeo-wetland and first migrations. Nature, v. 575, p. 185-189; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1714-1). The study focuses on data from the KhoeSan ethnic group, restricted to areas south of the Zambezi River, who speak a language with distinctive  click consonants. Some KhoeSan still practice a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Previous genetic studies showed the KhoeSan to differ markedly from other inhabitants of southern Africa, and they are widely regarded as having inhabited the area for far longer than any other groups. A sign of this emerges from their mtDNA in a genetic lineage signified as L0. Comparing KhoeSan mtDNA with the wider genetic database allowed the researchers to plot a ‘family tree’. Measures of the degree of difference between samples push back the origin of L0 and the KhoeSan themselves to roughly 200 ka.

The Okavango Delta today during the wet season (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It turns out that the LO lineage has several variants, whose geographic distributions allow the approximate place of origin for the lineage and directions of later migration from it to be mapped. It seems that LO was originally indigenous to the modern Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi salt flats of Botswana. People carrying the original (L0k) variant are estimated to have remained in the broad area for about 70 thousand years. During that time it was all lush, low-lying wetland around a huge, now vanished lake. The hydrology of the area was dramatically split by regional tectonic activity at around 60 ka. The lake simply evaporated to form the salt pan of the Makgadikgadi, leaving only the seasonal Okavango Delta as a destination for flood water. People carrying Lok stayed in the original homeland whereas other shifted. Migration routes to the northeast and towards the southwest and south are crudely mapped by the distribution of the other L0 variants among modern populations. They followed ‘green corridors’ between 130 and 110 ka, the collapse of the ecosystem leaving a small group of the founding population isolated from its descendants.

The paper claims that the former Botswana wetlands were the cradle of the first modern humans. Perhaps in southern Africa, but other, older AMH remains found far off and perhaps undiscovered elsewhere are more likely. But that can only be reconciled with the KhoeSan study by ancient DNA from fossils. Criticism of the sweeping claims in the paper has already been voiced, on these grounds and the study’s lack of data on paternal DNA or whole genomes from the sampled population.

See also: Gibbons, A. 2019. Experts question study claiming to pinpoint birthplace of all humans. Science (online); DOI: 10.1126/science.aba0155

Tracing hominin evolution further back

The earliest hominin known from Africa is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, announced in 2002 by Michel Brunet and his team working in 7 Ma old Miocene sediments deposited by the predecessor to Lake Chad in the central Sahara Desert. Only cranial bones were present. From the rear the skull and cranial capacity resembled what might have been regarded as an early relative of chimpanzees. But its face and teeth look very like those of an australopithecine. Sadly, the foramen magnum – where the cranium is attached to the spine – was not well preserved, and leg bones were missing. The position of the first is a clue to posture; forward of the base of the skull would suggest an habitual upright posture, towards the rear being characteristic of knuckle walkers. Some authorities, including Brunet, believe Sahelanthropus may have been upright, but others strongly contest that. The angle of the neck-and-head ball joint of the femur (thigh bone), where the leg is attached to a socket on the pelvis to form the hip joint is a clue to both posture and gait. The earliest clear sign of an upright, bipedal gait is the femur of a fossil primate from Africa – about a million years younger than Sahelanthropus, found in the Tugen Hills of Kenya. Orrorin tugenensis was described from 20 bone fragments, making up: a bit of the other femur, three hand bones; a fragment of the upper arm (humerus); seven teeth; part of the left and right side of a lower jawbone (mandible). Apart from the femur that retains a neck and head and signifies an upright gait, only the teeth offer substantial clues. Orrorin has  a dentition similar to humans apart from ape-like canines but significantly smaller in size – all known hominins lack the large canines, relative to other teeth. Despite being almost 2 Ma older than Ardipithecus ramidus, the first clearly bipedal hominin, Orrorin is more similar to humans than both it and Australopithecus afarensis, Lucy’s species.

Near-complete skeleton of Oreopithecus bambolii from Italy (credit: Wikipedia Commons)

DNA differences suggest that human evolution split from that of chimpanzees about 12 Ma ago. Yet the earlier Miocene stratigraphy of Africa has yet to provide a shred of evidence for earlier members of either lineage or a plausible last common ancestor of both. In 1872, a year after publication of Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man parts of an extinct primate were found in Miocene sediments in Tuscany and Sardinia, Italy. In 1950 an almost complete skeleton was unearthed and named Oreopithecus bambolii (see Hominin evolution becoming a thicket, January 2013). Despite dozens of specimens having been found in different localities, the creature was largely ignored in subsequent debate about human origins, until 1990 when it was discovered that not only could Oreopithecus walk on two legs, albeit differently from humans, it had relatively small canine teeth and its hands were like those of hominins, capable of a precision grip. Dated at 7 to 9 Ma, it may lie further back on the descent path of hominins; but it lived in Europe not Africa. Now the plot has thickened, for another primate has emerged from a clay pit in Bavaria, Germany (Böhme, M. and 8 others 2019. A new Miocene ape and locomotion in the ancestor of great apes and humans. Nature, online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1731-0).

Bones from 4 Danuvius guggenmosi individuals. Note the diminutive sizes compared with living apes (Credit: Christoph Jäckle)

Danuvius guggenmosi lived 11.6 Ma ago and its fossilised remains represent four individuals. Both femurs and a tibea (lower leg), together with the upper arm bones are preserved. The femurs and vertebrae strongly suggest that Danuvius could walk on two legs, indeed the vertebral shapes indicate that it had a flexible spine; essential for balance by supporting the weight of the torso over the pelvis. It also had long arms, pointing to its likely hanging in and brachiating through tree canopies. Maybe it had the benefit of two possible lifestyles; arboreal and terrestrial. Its discoverers do not go that far, suggesting that it probably lived entirely in trees using both forms of locomotion in ‘extended limb clambering’. It may not have been alone, another younger European primate found in the Miocene of Hungary, Rudapithecus hungaricus, may also have had similar clambering abilities, as might have Oreopithecus.

There is sure to be a great deal of head scratching among palaeoanthropologists, now that three species of Miocene primate seem – for the moment – to possess  ‘prototype specifications’ for early entrants on the evolutionary path to definite hominins. Questions to be asked are ‘If so, how did any of them cross the geographic barrier to Africa; i.e. the Mediterranean Sea?’, ‘Did the knuckle-walking chimps evolve from a bipedal common ancestor shared with hominins?, ‘Did bipedalism arise several times?’. The first may not have been as difficult as it might seem (see Africa_Europe exchange of faunas in the Late Miocene, July 2013). The Betic Seaway that once separated Iberia from NW Africa, in a similar manner to the modern Straits of Gibraltar, closed during the Miocene after a ‘mild’ tectonic collision that threw up the Betic Cordillera of Southern Spain. Between 5.6 and 5.3 Ma there was a brief ‘window of opportunity’ for the crossing, that ended with one of the most dramtic events in the Cenozoic Era; the Zanclean Flood, when the Atlantic burst through what is now the Straits of Gibraltar cataclysmically to refill the Mediterranean .

See also: Barras, C. 2019. Ancient ape offers clues to evolution of two-legged walking. Nature, v. 575, online; Kivell, T.L. 2019. Fossil ape hints at how walking on two feet evolved. Nature, v. 575, online; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-03347-0

How permanent is the Greenland ice sheet?

80% of the world’s largest island is sheathed in glacial ice up to 3 km thick, amounting to 2.85 million km3. A tenth as large as the Antarctic ice sheet, if melted it could still add over 7 m to global sea level if it melted completely; compared with 58 m should Antarctica suffer the same fate. Antarctica accumulated glacial ice from about 34 to 24 million years ago during the Oligocene Epoch, deglaciated to became largely ice free until about 12 Ma and then assumed a permanent, albeit fluctuating, ice cap until today. In contrast, Greenland only became cold enough to support semi-permanent ice cover from about 2.4 Ma during the late-Pliocene to present episode of ice-age and interglacial cycles. The base of the GRIP ice core from central Greenland has been dated at 1 Ma old, but such is the speed of ice movement driven by far higher snow precipitation than in Antarctica that it is possible that basal ice is shifted seawards. The deepest layers recovered by drilling have lost their annual layering as a result of ice’s tendency to deform in a plastic fashion so do not preserve detailed glacial history before about 110 ka. In contrast, the more slowly accumulating and more sluggishly moving Antarctic ice records over 800 ka of climatic cyclicity in continuous cores and has yielded 2.7 Ma old blue ice exposed at the surface with another 2 km lying beneath it.

However, sediments at the base of two ice cores from Greenland have raised the possibility of periods when the island was free of ice. One such example is from an early core drilled to a depth of 1390 m beneath the 1960’s US military’s nuclear weapons base, Camp Century. It helped launch the use of continental ice as a repository of Earth recent climatic history at a far better resolution than do sediment cores from the ocean floors. It languished in cold storage after it was transferred from the US to the University of Copenhagen. Recently, samples from the bottom 3 m of sediment-rich ice were rediscovered in glass jars. A workshop centring on this seemingly unprepossessing material took place in the last week of October 2019 at the University of Vermont, USA (Voosen, P. 2019. Mud in stored ice core hints at thawed Greenland. Science, v. 366, p. 556-557; DOI: 10.1126/science.366.6465.556.

Sediment recovered from the base of the Camp Century core through the Greenland ice sheet (credit Jean-Louis Tison, Free University of Brussels)

To the participants’ astonishment, among the pebbles and sand were fragments of moss and woody material. It was not till, but a soil; Greenland had once lost its ice cover. Measurement of radioactive isotopes 26Al and 10Be, that form when cosmic rays pass through exposed sand grains, revealed that the once vegetated soil had formed at about 400 ka. Preliminary DNA analyses of preserved plant material indicates species that would have thrived at around 10°C. Samples have been shared widely for comprehensive analysis  to reconstruct the kind of surface environment that developed during the 400 ka interglacial. Also, Greenland may have been bare of ice during several such relatively warm intervals. So other cores to the base of the ice may be in the funding pipeline. But most interest centres on the implications of a period of rapid anthropogenic climatic warming that may take Arctic temperatures above those that melted the Greenland ice sheet 400 ka ago.

See also: UVM Today 2019. Secrets under the ice.

More on the Younger Dryas causal mechanism

The divergence of opinion on why a millennium-long return to glacial conditions began 12.8 thousand years recently deepened. The Younger Dryas stadial was an unprecedented event that halted and even reversed the human recolonisation of mid- to high northern latitudes after the end of the last ice age. Its inception was phenomenally rapid, taking a couple of decades to as little as perhaps a few years. The first plausible explanation was put forward by Wallace Broecker in 1989, who looked to explosive release of meltwater trapped in glacial lakes astride the Canadian-US border along the present St Lawrence River Valley, effectively flooding the source of NADW with a surface layer of low-density, low-salinity water. This, he suggested, would have shut down the thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic. This is currently driven by cooling of salty surface water brought from the tropics to the Arctic Ocean by the Gulf Stream so that the resulting increase in density causes it to sink and thereby drive this part of the ocean water ‘conveyor’ system. A massive freshwater influx would prevent sinking and shut down the Gulf Stream, with the obvious effect of cooling high northern latitudes allowing ice caps to return to the surrounding continents. Yet Broecker’s St Lawrence flood mechanism was flawed by lack of evidence and the knowledge that a well-documented flood along that valley a thousand years before had raise se level by 20 m with no climatic effect. In 2005 clear evidence was found for a huge glacial outburst flood directly to the Arctic Ocean at around 12.8 ka that had followed Canada’s MacKenzie River; a route that would force low-density seawater to the very source of North Atlantic Deep Water through the Fram Straits, thereby stopping thermohaline circulation.

The year 2007 saw the emergence of a totally different account (see Whizz-bang view of Younger Dryas, July 2007; Impact cause for Younger Dryas draws flak, May 2008) centring on evidence for a 12.8 ka major impact in the form of excess iridium; spherules; fullerenes and evidence for huge wildfires in soils directly above the last known occurrences of the superbly crafted tools known as Clovis points – the hallmark of the earliest known humans in North America. Later (see Comet slew large mammals of the Americas?, March 2009) the same team reported minute diamonds from the same soils along with evidence for extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna; a view that was panned unmercifully.  Like the yet-to-be-found ‘end-Permian impact’ previously proposed by the same team, no crater of Younger Dryas age was then known. However, in 2018, ice-penetrating radar surveys revealed a convincing, 31 km wide subglacial impact structure beneath the Greenland ice cap, that is directly overlain by ice of Holocene (<11.7 ka) age. This reopened the case for an extraterrestrial origin for the Younger Dryas, followed by evidence from Chile for 12.8 ka wildfires presented by a team that includes academics who first made claims of an impact cause.

Colour-coded subglacial topography from radar sounding over the Hiawatha Glacier of NW Greenland (Credit: Kjaer et al. 2018; Fig. 1D)

Last week, the impact-hungry team provided further evidence in lake-bed sediments from South Carolina, USA, which they have dated using an advanced approach to the radiocarbon method (Moore, C.R. and 16 others 2019. Sediment Cores from White Pond, South Carolina, contain a Platinum Anomaly, Pyrogenic Carbon Peak, and Coprophilous Spore Decline at 12.8 ka. Nature Scientific Reports, v. 9, online 15121; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-51552-8). This centres on a large spike in platinum and palladium, which they date to 12,785 ± 58 years before present; i.e. the start of the Younger Dryas. Preceding it is a peak in soot with a distinctive δ13C value attributed to wildfires (12, 838 ± 103 years b.p), and is followed by a peak in nitrogen isotopes (δ15N), indicating environmental changes, and a sharp decline in spores (12,752 ± 54 years b.p) attributed to fungi that consume herbivore dung – a sign of a decline in the local megafauna. In other words, a confirmation of previous findings at the Clovis site– but no diamonds. The variations in different parameters are based on 30 to 35 samples (each about 2 cm long) from about 0.8 m of sediment core, so it is curious that most of the data are presented as continuous curves. That issue may become the focus of criticism, as may the need for confirmation from other lake-bed cores from a wider number of localities. With such polarised views on a crucial episode in recent geological and biological history critical scrutiny is sure to come.

How does plate tectonics work?

Well, surely we ought to know, 52 years after W. Jason Morgan proposed that the Earth’s surface consists of 12 rigid plates that move relative to each other. But that is not completely true, although most of its mechanisms expressed by external and internal Earth processes are known in great detail. It is still a ‘chicken and egg’ issue: do convective motions in the mantle drive the superficial plates around by dragging at the base of the lithosphere or is it the subduction of plates and slab-pull force that result in overturn of the mantle? Nicolas Coltice of the University of Paris and colleagues from those of Grenoble, Rome and Texas consider that posing plate tectonics in such a manner is an abstraction; rather like the plot for a novel that is yet to be written (Coltice, N. et al. 2019. What drives tectonic plates? Science Advances, v. 5, online eaax4295; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax4295). Instead, all the solid Earth’s vagaries and motions have to be considered as an indivisible whole rather than the traditional piecemeal approach of focussing on the forces that act on the interfaces between plates.

Their approach is to model a combination of mechanisms throughout the Earth as a single, evolving three-dimensional system without the constraint of perfectly rigid plates, which of course they are not. The physical parameters boil down to those involved in relative buoyancy, viscosity, and gradients of temperature, pressure and gravitational potential energy within a spherical planet. Designing the algorithms and running the model on a supercomputer took 9 months to reconstruct the evolution of the planet over 1.5 billion years.

Still from a movie of simulated breakup of a supercontinent, in bland blue-grey, showing what happens at the surface (left) and, at the same time, in the mantle (right): note the influence of rising plumes (credit: Nicolas Coltice)

The result is a remarkable series of unfolding scenarios. In them, 2/3 of the planet’s surface moves faster than does the underlying mantle, suggesting that the surface is dragging the interior. For the remainder, mantle motions exceed those of the surface. Continents are dragged by the underlying mantle to aggregate in supercontinents, which in turn are torn apart by the sinking of cold oceanic slabs. The model takes on a highly visual form, showing in 3-D, for instance: ocean closure and supercontinent assembly; and example of continental breakup; how subduction is initiated.

It will be fascinating to see the reaction of the authors’ peers to their venture, and the extent to which the technicalities of the paper are translated into a form that is suitable for teaching. My suspicion is that most Earth scientists will be happy to stay with the old conceptions until the latter is achieved, and laptops are able to run the model(!)

What followed the K-Pg extinction event?

A study of boron isotopes in the tests of foraminifera that lived deep in the oceans and near their surface just after the K-Pg boundary event has revealed that ocean water suddenly became more acidic (Henehan, M.J. and 13 others 2019. Rapid ocean acidification and protracted Earth system recovery followed the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Online; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1905989116). Because the data came from marine sediment sequences exposed in Europe and North America  and from ocean-floor cores beneath the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the acidification was global in scope. The sharp fall in pH, almost certainly due to massive release of sulphuric and carbonic acids from thick anhydrite  and limestone beds beneath the Chicxulub impact site was instrumental in the collapse of marine ecosystems. A rebound to higher, more alkaline pH values (overshooting those of the preceding Late Cretaceous) was equally rapid. That is ascribed to the post-extinction dearth of marine organisms that take up calcium in their shells so that dissolved Ca became more abundant. Within less than 100 ka of the Chicxulub impact ocean pH had returned to its pre-impact levels. Since Deccan flood-basalt volcanism was active until long after, Henehan et al. consider that its influence on ocean acidification was minimal and that The Chicxulub impact ‘was key in driving end-Cretaceous mass extinction’.

Records of marine fossils are both more abundant and continuous than are those of land-based organisms. That animal extinctions on the continents were dramatic has been clear for over a century. Entire classes, notably the dinosaurs (except for birds), as well as orders, families, genera and species disappear from the fossil record. The event more than decimated plant taxa too. How and at what pace the vacated ecological niches were reoccupied during the evolutionary radiation among what became modern fauna and flora remain poorly understood. For the first million years of post-impact time fossils of terrestrial and freshwater organisms are very rare. Well-dated sedimentary sequences are patchily distributed, and fossils preserved in them as rare as proverbial hen’s teeth, apart from a few, better endowed strata separated by thick, unproductive sediments. A Lower Palaeocene site near Denver in Colorado, USA extends for 27 km. At first sight it does not impress palaeontologists, but it carries concretions that yield rich hauls of tiny vertebrate fossils. Dating using U-Pb dating of interleaved volcanic ash layers, stratigraphy based on normal and reversed polarity of remanent magnetism, and plant pollen variations. The 250 m thick sedimentary unit can be divided into 150 levels that represent the first million years flowing the Chicxulub impact (Lyson, T.R. and 15 others 2019. Paleogene mass extinction -Exceptional continental record of biotic recovery after the Cretaceous. Science, online first release; DOI: 10.1126/science.aay2268.

Reconstruction of the 35 kg early Palaeocene mammal Taeniolabis (credit: Wikipedia)

The levels contain abundant remains of early Cenozoic mammals, particularly skulls that are vitally important in taxonomy and size estimation. During the last few hundred thousand years of the Cretaceous, mammals about the size of a modern racoon (~8 kg) were abundant. The oldest Palaeocene holds nothing bigger than a 600 g rat, and few of them. Then, remarkably, the numbers, diversity and mean body mass of mammals grow; raccoon-size back within 100 ka then, in a series of steps, beasts around 25, 35 and 45 kg emerged successively during the next 600 ka. Clearly, the local food chain had to support this growth in size as well as numbers. Pollen records reveal a terrain first dominated by ferns – not especially nutritious – then after 200 ka by palms and finally legumes (pulses) appear. The diversification of animals and plants changed in lockstep. Studies of fossil-leaf shapes (toothed = cooler; smooth = warmer) indicated a similarly triple-stepwise amelioration in climate from cool, post-impact to hot by 65 Ma ago. This climatic warming may have been connected to successive pulses of Deccan volcanism that drove up atmospheric CO2 levels. Geologically, that is pretty quick. In the context of a possible, equally rapid mass extinction as a result of anthropogenic factors, such a pace of recovery is hardly reassuring…

Chaos and the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum

The transition from the Palaeocene to Eocene Epochs (56 Ma) was marked by an abrupt increase in global mean temperature of about 5 to 8°C within about 10 to 20 thousand years. That is comparable to a rate of warming similar to that currently induced by human activities. The evidence comes from the oxygen isotopes and magnesium/calcium ratios in the tests of both surface- and bottom dwelling foraminifera. The event is matched by a similarly profound excursion in the δ13C of carbon-rich strata of that age, whose extreme negative value marks the release of a huge mass of previously buried organic carbon to the atmosphere. The Epoch-boundary coincides with the beginning of rapid diversification among mammals and plants that had survived the end-Cretaceous mass extinction some 10 Ma beforehand. The most likely cause was the release of methane, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, from gas hydrate buried just beneath the surface of sea-floor sediments on continental shelves. An estimated mass of 1.5 trillion tonnes of released methane has been suggested. Methane rapidly oxidizes to CO2 in the atmosphere, which dissolves to make rainwater slightly acid so that the oceans also become more acid; a likely cause for the mass extinction of foraminifera species at the boundary.

Since the discovery of the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) in the late-1990s a range of possible causes have been suggested. Releasing methane suddenly from sea-floor gas hydrates needs some kind of trigger, such as a steady increase in the temperature of ocean-bottom water to above the critical level for gas-hydrate stability. The late-Palaeocene witnessed slow global warming by between 3 to 5°C over 4 to 5 Ma. There are several hypotheses for this precursor warming, such as a direct CO2 release from the mantle by volcanic activity for which there are several candidates in the geological record of the Palaeocene. Such surface warming would have had to be transferred to the sea floor on continental shelves to destabilise gas hydrates, which implicates a change in oceanic current patterns. An extraterrestrial cause has also been considered (see Impact linked to the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary event, Earth-logs October 2016). Sediment cores from the North Atlantic off the eastern seaboard of the US have revealed impact debris including glass spherules and shocked mineral grains at the same level as the PETM, together with iridium in terrestrial sediments onshore of the same age: there are no such global signatures). But apart from two small craters in Texas and Jordan (12 and 5 km across, respectively) of roughly the same age, no impact event of the necessary magnitude for truly global influence is known. However, there may have been an altogether different triggering mechanism.

Since the confirmation of the Milanković-Croll hypothesis to explain the cyclical shifts in climate during the Pleistocene Epoch in terms of changes in Earth’s orbital characteristics induced by varying gravitational forces in the solar system, the findings have been used as an alternative means of dating other stratigraphic events that show cyclicity. In essence, the varying forces at work are inherently chaotic in a formally mathematical sense. Although Milanković cycles sometimes pop-up when ancient, repetitive stratigraphic sequences are analysed, consistently using the method as a tool to calibrate the geological record to an astronomical timescale breaks down for sediments older than about 50 Ma. Calculations disagree markedly beyond that time. Richard Zeebe and Lucas Lourens of the Universities of Hawaii and Utrecht tried an opposite approach, using the known geological records from deep-sea cores to calibrate the astronomical predictions and, in turn, used the solution to take the astronomical time scale further back than 50 Ma (Zeebe, R.E. & Lourens, L.J. 2019. Solar System chaos and the Paleocene–Eocene boundary age constrained by geology and astronomy. Science, v. 365, p. 926-929; DOI: 10.1126/science.aax0612). They reached back about 8 Ma, so putting the PETM in focus. As well as refining its age (56.01 ± 0.05 Ma) they showed that the PETM coincided with a 405 ka maximum in Earth’s orbital eccentricity lasting around 170 ka: a possible orbital trigger for the spike in temperature and δ13C together, with evidence for a period of chaos in the Solar System about 50 Ma ago. But, what did that chaos actually do, other than mess up orbital dating? To me it seems to suggest something narsty happening to the behaviour of the Giant Planets that are the Lords of the astronomical dance…

See also: Grabowski, M. 2019. Deep-sea sediments reveal solar system chaos: an advance in dating geologic archives. SOEST News

Ancient oil migration

In order for petroleum deposits to form, the first requirement is a source of abundant hydrocarbons, most usually from a mudstone that was deposited under highly reducing conditions. In such an environment dead organic matter can accumulate without complete decay and oxidation to form a source rock or black shale. The next step comes from burial and heating until the dead matter matures to release liquid and gaseous hydrocarbons. In turn these fluids, along with heated water, must leave the impermeable source rock and migrate through more porous and permeable strata, such as sandstone or limestone reservoir rocks. Either they reach the surface to escape or become trapped in some kind of geological structure. In migrating, the hydrocarbons induce reducing condition in the rocks through which they flow, often bleaching them as the colouring agents based on insoluble iron-3 compounds are reduced to iron-2 that dissolves and is carried out of the system along with the hydrocarbons.

Throughout the Precambrian, the Earth was lacking in free or dissolved oxygen, even after the Great Oxidation Event at around 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago; ideal conditions for the formation of black-shale source rocks. And indeed there are huge volumes of them going back to the Palaeoarchaean Era (>3.25 Ga). The Earth’s heat flow having be greater then, due to less decay of radioactive heat-producing elements in the mantle, petroleum must have been generated in volumes at least as large as that released during the Phanerozoic. Yet there are few oilfields of Precambrian age, and geologists usually don’t bother looking for oil in very ancient rocks, largely because the older a rock sequence is the more likely it has been deeply buried and heated above the temperature at which oil breaks down into hydrocarbon gases (~130°C), which in turn are destroyed above about 250°C. Moreover, many such ancient rocks have generally been deformed by many phases of brittle tectonic processes that formed zones of fracturing that give lines of easy escape for pressurised fluids.

Interleaved chert (white) and ironstone of the Palaeoproterozoic Gunflint Iron Formation of Ontario, Canada and Minnesota, USA.

So, looking for telltale signs of oil formation and migration in Precambrian strata is pretty much a matter of academic curiosity. Solid, bituminous hydrocarbons granules and veins are not uncommon in Precambrian sediments, although their relationships do not rule out later introduction into ancient rocks. Birger Rasmussen of the University of Western Australia has been tracking down such signs for over 30 years, his best known discovery – in 2005 – being in Archaean rocks (3.2 to 2.6 Ga) of the Pilbara craton in Western Australia. Recently, he and Janet Muhling of the same institution reported stunning evidence of migration in the Palaeoproterozoic Era (Rasmussen, B. & Muhling, J.R. 2019. Evidence for widespread oil migration in the 1.88 Ga Gunflint Formation, Ontario, Canada. Geology, v. 47, p. 899-903; DOI: 10.1130/G46469.1). The sedimentary unit is a banded iron formation containing interleaved cherts (famous for their content of some of the oldest incontrovertible microfossils), a granular variant of which is pervaded by solid bitumen in both granules and former pore spaces. This is interpreted as the result of oil migration during the actual cementation of the ironstone by silica; i.e. during diagenesis below the seabed rather than through solid sedimentary rock. Bitumen also fills later fractures. Rasmussen and Muhling consider the most likely scenario for this undoubted Palaeoproterozoic reservoir to have formed. They conclude that it coincided with the tectonic burial of the BIF basin beneath an exotic thrust block about 20 Ma after its formation. This generated petroleum from older source rocks, remote from the site of BIF deposition, that migrated away and up-dip from the thrust belt following the unconsolidated BIF formation.

Ordovician ice age: an extraterrestrial trigger

The Ordovician Period is notable for three global events; an explosion in biological diversity; an ice age, and a mass extinction. The first, colloquially known as the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event, occurred in the Middle Ordovician around 470 Ma ago (see The Great Ordovician Diversification, September 2008) when the number of recorded fossil families tripled. In the case of brachiopods, this seems to have happened in no more than a few hundred thousand years. The glacial episode spanned the period from 460 to 440 Ma and left tillites in South America, Arabia and, most extensively, in Africa. Palaeogeographic reconstructions centre a Gondwanan ice cap in the Western Sahara, close to the Ordovician South Pole. It was not a Snowball Earth event, but covered a far larger area than did the maximum extent the Pleistocene ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere. It is the only case of severe global cooling bracketing one or the ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions of the Phanerozoic Eon. In fact two mass extinctions during the Late Ordovician rudely interrupted the evolutionary promise of the earlier threefold diversification, by each snuffing-out almost 30% of known genera.

ord met
L-chondrite meteorite in iron-stained Ordovician limestone together with a nautiloid (credit: Birger Schmitz)

A lesser-known feature of the Ordovician Period is a curious superabundance of extraterrestrial debris, including high helium-3, chromium and iridium concentrations, preserved in sedimentary rocks, particularly those exposed around the Baltic Sea (Schmitz, B. and 19 others 2019. An extraterrestrial trigger for the mid-Ordovician ice age: Dust from the breakup of the L-chondrite parent body. Science Advances, v. 5(9), eaax4184; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax4184). Yet there is not a sign of any major impact of that general age, and the meteoritic anomaly occupies a 5 m thick sequence at the best studied site in Sweden, representing about 2 Ma of deposition, rather than the few centimetres at near-instantaneous impact horizons such as the K-Pg boundary. Intact meteorites are almost exclusively L-chondrites dated at around 466 Ma. Schmitz and colleagues reckon that the debris represents the smashing of a 150 km-wide asteroid in orbit between Mars and Jupiter. Interestingly, L-chondrites are more abundant today and in post-Ordovician sediments than they were in pre-Ordovician records, amounting to about a third of all finds. This suggests that the debris is still settling out in the Inner Solar System hundreds of million years later. Not long after the asteroid was smashed a dense debris cloud would have entered the Inner Solar System, much of it in the form of dust.

The nub of Schmitz et al’s hypothesis is that considerably less solar radiation fell on Earth after the event, resulting in a sort of protracted ‘nuclear winter’ that drove the Earth into much colder conditions. Meteoritic iron falling the ocean would also have caused massive phytoplankton blooms that sequestered CO2 from the Ordovician atmosphere to reduce the greenhouse effect. Yet the cooling seems not to have immediately decimated the ‘booming’ faunas of the Middle Ordovician. Perhaps the disruption cleared out some ecological niches, for new species to occupy, which may explain sudden boosts in diversity among groups such as brachiopods. Two sharp jumps in brachiopod species numbers are preceded and accompanied by ‘spikes’ in the number of extraterrestrial chromite grains in one Middle Ordovician sequence. One possibility, suggested in an earlier paper (Schmitz, B. and 8 others 2008. Asteroid breakup linked to the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. Nature Geoscience, v. 1, p. 49-53; DOI: 10.1038/ngeo.2007.37)  is that the undoubted disturbance may have killed off species of one group, maybe trilobites, so that the resources used by them became available to more sturdy groups, whose speciation filled the newly available niches. Such a scenario would make sense, as mobile predators/scavengers (e.g. trilobites) may have been less able to survive disruption, thereby favouring the rise of less metabolically energetic filter feeders (e.g. brachiopods).

See also: Sokol, J. 2019. Dust from asteroid breakup veiled and cooled Earth. Science, v. 365, pp. 1230: DOI: 10.1126/science.365.6459.1230, How the first metazoan mass extinction happened (Earth-logs, May 2014)

Last day of the dinosaurs

As they say, ‘everyone knows’ that the dinosaurs were snuffed out, except, of course, for those that had evolved to become birds and somehow survived. When it happened is known quite precisely – at the end of the Cretaceous (66.043 ± 0.011 Ma) – and there were two possible causal mechanisms: emissions from the Deccan Trap flood basalts and/or the Chicxulub impact crater. But what was the Cretaceous-Palaeogene (K-Pg) boundary event actually like? Many have speculated, but now there is evidence.

In 2016 a deep-sea drilling rig extracted rock core to a depth of 1.35 km beneath the sea floor off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, slightly off the centre of the circular Chicxulub structure (see K-T (K-Pg) boundary impact probed, November 2016). This venture was organised and administered jointly by the International Ocean Discovery Program IODP) and the International Continental Scientific Drilling Program (ICDP) as Mission Specific Platform Expedition no. 364. Results from the analysis of the cored rock sequence have been generating pulses of excitement among palaeontologists, petrologists and planetary scientist on a regular basis. The science has been relatively slow to emerge in peer-reviewed print. Appetites have been whetted and the first substantial paper is about the bottom 130 metres of the core (Gulick, S.P.S. and 29 others 2019. The first day of the Cenozoic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 9 September 2019; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1909479116). It might seem as though the publication schedule has been stage managed to begin with, literally, the ‘bang’ itself.

The deepest 20 m thick layer is mainly silicate glass. It was formed in the seconds after the 12 km-wide impactor arrived to smash through the water and sea-floor sediments of the early Caribbean Sea, at speed of around 20 Km s-1. It vaporised water and rock as well as shoving aside the surrounding sea and blasting debris skyward and outward. In an instant a new hole in the crust was filled with molten rock. The overlying rock is a veritable apple-crumble of shattered debris mixed with and held together by glass, and probably formed as water flowed into the crater to result in explosive reaction with the molten crystalline crust beneath. The fragments lessen in size up the core, probably reflecting ejected material mixed in the displaced seawater. Impact specialists have estimated that this impactite layer formed in little more than ten minutes after collision. The glass-laden breccia is abruptly capped by bedded sediments, considered to have been delivered by the backwash of a huge, initial tsunami. In them are soils and masses of charcoal, from the surrounding land areas, scorched and burnt by the projectile’s entry flash, inundated by the tsunami and then dragged out to sea as it receded. These are the products of the hours following the impact as successive tsunamis swashed to and fro across the proto-Caribbean Basin; hence ‘The first day of the Cenozoic’, of Gulick et al.’s title.

Artist’s impression of the Chicxulub impact (Credit: Barcroft Productions for the BBC)

Other cores drilled beyond the scope of the Chicxulub crater during offshore oil exploration show a sequence of limestones with thick beds of gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O). Yet the crater debris itself contains no trace of this mineral. Around 325 Gt of sulfur, almost certainly in the form of SO2, entered the atmosphere on that first day, adding to the dust. Ending up in the stratosphere as aerosols it would have diffused solar radiation away from the surface, resulting in an estimated 25°C global cooling that lasted 25 years. The sulfur oxides in the lower atmosphere ended up in acid rain that eventually acidified the upper ocean to devastate shallow-marine life.

See also: Amos, J. 2019. The day the dinosaurs’ world fell apart. (BBC News 10 September 2019); Rocks at asteroid impact site record first day of dinosaur extinction (Phys.org); Wei-Haas, M. 2019. Last day of the dinosaurs’ reign captured in stunning detail.  National Geographic, 9 September 2019.