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Department of Earth Sciences

News

Collapse of civilizations worldwide defines youngest unit of the Geologic Time Scale

(6 July 2018)

The Late Holocene Meghalayan Age, newly-ratified as the most recent unit of the Geologic Time Scale, began at the time when agricultural societies around the world experienced an abrupt and critical mega-drought and cooling 4,200 years ago. This key decision follows many years of research by Quaternary scientists, scrutinized and tested by the subcommissions of the International Commission on Stratigraphy under the chairmanship of Professor David Harper, Durham University, UK.

Agricultural-based societies that developed in several regions after the end of the last Ice Age were impacted severely by the 200-year climatic event that resulted in the collapse of civilizations and human migrations in Egypt, Greece, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and the Yangtze River Valley. Evidence of the 4.2 kiloyear climatic event has been found on all seven continents.

The Meghalayan Age is unique among the many intervals of the Geologic Time Scale in that its beginning coincides with a global cultural event produced by a global climatic event, said Dr. Stanley Finney, Professor of Geological Sciences at Long Beach State University and Secretary General of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). 

The convergence of stratigraphy and human cultural evolution is extraordinary, according to Professor Martin Head, a geologist at Brock University in Canada and Chair of the International Commission on Quaternary Stratigraphy. 

Yale University's Harvey Weiss, Professor of Environmental Studies and Near Eastern Archaeology, considers this decision to be a significant moment in the history of Holocene climate and archaeology science.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy, which is responsible for standardizing the Geologic Time Scale, approved the definition of the beginning of the youngest unit of the Geologic Time Scale based on the timing of this event. Furthermore, it approved proposals for two other ages: the Middle Holocene Northgrippian Age and the Early Holocene Greenlandian Age with beginnings defined at climatic events that happened about 8,300 years and 11,700 years ago, respectively. The three ages comprise the Holocene Epoch, which represents the time since the end of the last Ice Age. The Commission then forwarded these proposals to its parent body, the IUGS, for consideration, and the executive committee of IUGS voted unanimously to ratify them.

Units of the Geologic Time Scale are based on sedimentary strata that have accumulated over time and contain within them sediment types, fossils and chemical isotopes that record the passage of time as well as the physical and biological events that produced them.

The three new ages of the Holocene Epoch are represented by a wealth of sediment that accumulated worldwide on the sea floor, on lake bottoms, as glacial ice, and as calcite layers in stalactites and stalagmites. Those intervals of sedimentary strata on which the ages are based are referred to as stages, and together the strata of three new stages comprise the Holocene Series. The lower boundary of the Greenlandian and Northgripppian stages are defined at specific levels in Greenland ice cores. The lower boundary of the Meghalayan Stage is defined at a specific level in a stalagmite from a cave in northeast India. The ice cores and the stalagmite are now identified as international geostandards, and have been placed in protected archives accessible for further study.

The decision to define these new stages of the Holocene Series and thus the three new corresponding ages of the Holocene Epoch allows for an update to the International Chronostratigraphic Chart (www.stratigraphy.org), which depicts the timeline for the earth’s full geologic history.

This is a key achievement for the International Union of Geological Sciences and particularly for its Commission on Stratigraphy. The proposals were developed by a dedicated, international team of Holocene scientists led by Professor Mike Walker of the University of Wales. They were subsequently approved by the International Subcommission of Quaternary Stratigraphy and the International Commission on Stratigraphy before being forward to IUGS for ratification. According to Professor David Harper, the many years of scientific research and international collaboration followed by intense scrutiny of the proposals as they were evaluated at several levels in the IUGS organization give legitimacy to the new units as global standards.