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The Neogene and Quaternary : chronostratigraphic compromise or non-overlapping magisteria?

2009-03 , Aubry, Marie-Pierre , Berggren, William A. , Van Couvering, John , McGowran, Brian , Hilgen, Frits , Steininger, Fritz , Lourens, Lucas

The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) together with its subcommissions on Neogene Stratigraphy (SNS) and Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS) are facing a persistent conundrum regarding the status of the Quaternary, and the implications for the Neogene System/Period and the Pleistocene Series/Epoch. The SQS, in seeking a formal role for the Quaternary in the standard time scale, has put forward reasons not only to truncate and redefine the Neogene in order to accommodate this unit as a third System/Period in the Cenozoic, but furthermore to shift the base of the Pleistocene to c. 2.6 Ma to conform to a new appreciation of when “Quaternary climates” began. The present authors, as members of SNS, support the well-established concept of a Neogene extending to the Recent, as well as the integrity of the Pleistocene according to its classical meaning, and have published arguments for workable options that avoid this conflict. In this paper, we return to the basic principles involved in the conversion of the essentially marine biostratigraphic/ biochronologic units of Lyell and other 19th-century stratigraphers into the modern hierarchical arrangement of chronostratigraphic units, embodied in the Global Standard Stratotype-section and Point (GSSP) formulation for boundary definitions. Seen in this light, an immediate problem arises from the fact that the Quaternary, either in its original sense as a state of consolidation or in the more common sense as a paleoclimatic entity, is conceptually different from a Lyellian unit, and that a Neogene/Quaternary boundary may therefore be a non sequitur. Secondly, as to retaining the base of the Pleistocene at 1.8 Ma, the basic hierarchical principles dictate that changing the boundary of any non-fundamental or “higher” chronostratigraphic unit is not possible without moving the boundary of its constituent fundamental unit. Therefore, to move the base of the Pleistocene, which is presently defined by the Calabrian GSSP at 1.8 Ma, to be identified with the Gelasian GSSP at 2.6 Ma, requires action to formally redefine the Gelasian as part of the Pleistocene. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that the subject under discussion is chronostratigraphy, not biostratigraphy. Both systems are based on the fossil record, but biostratigraphic units are created to subdivide and correlate stratigraphic sequences. The higher-level units of chronostratigraphy, however, were initially selected to reflect the history of life through geological time. The persistence of a characteristic biota in the face of environmental pressures during the last 23 my argues strongly for the concept of an undivided Neogene that extends to the present. Several ways to accommodate the Quaternary in the standard time scale can be envisaged that preserve the original concepts of the Neogene and Pleistocene. The option presently recommended by SNS, and most compatible with the SQS position, is to denominate the Quaternary as a subperiod/subsystem of the Neogene, decoupled from the Pleistocene so that its base can be identified with the Gelasian GSSP at c. 2.6 Ma. A second option is to retain strict hierarchy by restricting a Quaternary subperiod to the limits of the Pleistocene at 1.8 Ma. As a third option, the Quaternary could be a subera/suberathem or a supersystem/ superperiod, decoupled from the Neogene and thus with its base free to coincide with a convenient marker such as the base of the Pleistocene at 1.8 Ma, or to the Gelasian at 2.6 Ma, as opinions about paleoclimatology dictate. If no compromise can be reached within hierarchical chronostratigraphy, however, an alternative might be to consider Quaternary and Neogene as mutually exclusive categories (climatostratigraphic vs. chronostratigraphic) in historical geology. In this case, we would recommend the application of the principle of NOMA, or Non-Overlapping Magisteria, in the sense of the elegant essay by the late Stephen J. Gould (1999) on the mutually exclusive categories of Religion and Science. In this case the Quaternary would have its own independent status as a climatostratigraphic unit with its own subdivisions based on climatic criteria.