Stratigraphy, U-Th chronology, and paleoenvironments at Gladysvale Cave: insights into the climatic control of South African hominin-bearing cave deposits

Robyn Pickering
Phillip J. Hancox
Julia A. Lee-Thorp

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Gladysvale Cave is one of the few Plio-Pleistocene hominin-bearing cave sites in South Africa that contains a well-stratified cave fill with clastic sediments interspersed with flowstones. The clastic sediments can be divided into units based on the presence of intercalated flowstones, forming flowstone bounded units (FBU). Ten MC-ICP-MS uranium-series dates on several flowstone horizons in the Gladysvale Internal Deposit fan indicate deposition from the late mid-Pleistocene (∼570 ka) to Holocene (∼7 ka) during limited periods of higher effective moisture. Clastic sedimentation occurred during the interceding, presumably more arid, periods. This sequence is not consistent with earlier models for South African caves that simply assumed interglacial sedimentation and glacial erosion. 13C/12C data suggest that flowstone tended to form during periods with higher proportions of C3 plants in the local vegetation, while clastic sediments reflect higher proportions of C4 grasses, although this is not always the case. We argue that flowstones are precipitated during periods of higher effective precipitation and restricted cave entrances, while clastic sediments accumulated during periods with more open vegetation. The sedimentary fill of the fossiliferous deposits are, therefore, highly episodic in nature, with large periods of time unlikely to be represented. This has serious implications for the other hominin-bearing caves close by, as these deposits are likely to be similarly episodic. This is especially pertinent when addressing extinction events and reconstructions of paleoenvironments, as large periods of time may be unrecorded. The Gladysvale Cave fill sediments may serve as a climatically forced chronostratigraphic model for these less well-stratified and well-dated Plio-Pleistocene sites.