Original Research

Isotopic evidence for the past climates and vegetation of southern Africa

J. C. Vogel
Bothalia | Vol 14, No 3/4 | a1183 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/abc.v14i3/4.1183 | © 1983 J. C. Vogel | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 31 October 1983 | Published: 06 November 1983

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J. C. Vogel, National Physical Research Laboratory, South Africa

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The stable isotopes of hydrogen, oxygen and carbon can potentially provide evidence of past climates. The most detailed information has been obtained from variations in the oxygen-18 content of foraminifera from ocean floor cores, the analysis of which has produced a record of ocean temperature changes through the Quaternary and beyond. The use of isotope analysis of continental materials to reveal climatic change is more limited, but some advances have been made in recent years.

One approach has been to utilize the variations in the isotopic composition of precipitation as recorded in ancient groundwater. Thus groundwater samples from a confined aquifer on the southern Cape coast show a marked rise in temperature since the Last Glacial maximum. The temperature changes during the Upper Pleistocene and Holocene are also reflected in the oxygen-18 content of stalagmites from the Cango caves in the same region.

The widespread occurrence of C4 grasses in the warmer summer rainfall areas of southern Africa provides a novel possibility of observing temporal shifts of climatic boundaries. The distinctly high carbon-13 content of C4 plants is clearly reflected in the skeletons of grazers so that faunal material from suitably situated archaeological sites can be used to observe changes in the composition of the local grass-cover. The evidence thus far accumulated suggests only minor changes since the Upper Pleistocene.

The combined evidence to date indicates that temperatures and also precipitation in southern Africa have changed since the Last Glacial maximum, about 18 000 years ago, but that shifts in the boundaries of the various veld-types were probably not very extensive.


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