Stay of execution for Quaternary

The last remaining division of geological time that Giovanni Arduino erected in the mid- to late 18th century, has been under threat for some time (see EPN of September 2004).  For over seven years, the ‘Time Lords’ of the International Commission of Stratigraphy have striven to resolve, at least for a while, al the fundamental divisions of stratigraphic nomenclature.  To the horror of researchers concerned with the last 2 million years or so, publication of the new time scale in 2004 seemed to have allowed the Neogene to swallow the Quaternary Period whole.  Muttering broke into a storm of angry e-mails demanding its restoration.

The reason behind the annoyance is simple.  The Quaternary is unique for two reasons: it includes the Great Ice Age, and it is the time of humanity – the first stone tools appear in the geological record between 2.4 and 2.6 Ma ago.  But those who demand the resurrection of the old name are not entirely in agreement among themselves, particularly about when it started.  The problem arose from the manner in which systematisation of both relative and radiometric time evolved.  Arduino recognised four divisions only, Primary, Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary based on decreasing compactness and complexity of rocks that he had seen in Italy.  The Quaternary was defined as unconsolidated material that sat upon the other three.  As fossils became the main tools of establishing relative time and wide correlation, Primary and Secondary were soon dropped.  But Tertiary and Quaternary remained as broad divisions until the late 20th century.  Tertiary strata became divided into 5 lesser palaeontological divisions, and Quaternary into two: Pleistocene and Holocene.  Radiometric dating demonstrated the brevity of the Tertiary compared with major stratigraphic divisions further back in time, so it was designated as a Period, subdivided into 5 epochs.  Tertiary itself then became elevated to Era status as the Cenozoic, despite its short time span, and its first three and last two epochs were bracketed by two new periods: Palaeogene and Neogene.  Development of geosciences was clearly marginalizing the Quaternary Period to which many devotees cling tenaciously.

The furore burst at the 32nd International Geological Congress in Florence in August 2004, and the ICS was duly chastened and apologetic.  It set up a task force to reunite the warring forces, or at least to draw plans for a truce. The task force voted in early June 2005 to retain the name Quaternary and to set its beginning at 2.6 Ma, thereby defining it as both the Great Ice Age and that of humankind.  Ironically, 2.6 Ma also marks the start of the Late Pliocene, defined by a Global Boundary Stratotype Sections and Point (the midpoint of sapropelic Nicola Bed (“A5”), Monte San Nicola, Gela, Sicily, Italy). You see, there has to be somewhere that you can visit and ‘put your finger on the proper boundary’.  This particular GSSP is defined as a stage in the fluctuation of oxygen isotopes in deep-sea sediments, at the start of the Matuyama geomagnetic reversal, and just below the points of extinction of two echinoid species…..  Incidentally, the ICS is by far the largest of the bodies within the International Union of Geological Sciences, the ‘UN’ of the geoscience community.  Acquiring the prestige of a GSSP ranks with many countries’ geoscientists at least as high as hosting an Olympic Games. Italy hosts 9 of the 22 Cenozoic GSSPs (5 are not yet placed), so clearly Arduino’s influence has been long lasting in some respects.  Several features of the New Timescale as a whole may confuse far into the future (should it stand the test of time).  The Stage names, learned by generations of stratigraphers, often through cunning mnemonics, are mainly taken from places or regions.  Most of the GSSPs at their bases are somewhere else (browse http://www.stratigraphy.org/).

Source: Giles, J. 2005.  Geologists call time on dating dispute.  Nature, v. 435, p. 865.

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