The East Africa Oligocene intertrappean beds: regional distribution, depositional environments and Afro/Arabian mammal dispersals

Ernesto Abbate, Piero Bruni, Marco Peter Ferretti, Cyrille Delmer, Marinella Ada Laurenzi, Miruts Hagos, Omar Bedri, Laurenzo Rook, Mario Sagri, Yosief Libsekal

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32 Citations (SciVal)


The extensive outpouring of the Oligocene Trap basalts over eastern Africa and western Arabia was interrupted by a period of quiescence marked by the deposition of terrestrial sediments. These so-called intertrappean beds are often lignitiferous and yield recurrent floras and faunas, sometimes represented by endemic mammals. We intended to highlight the peculiar features of these sedimentary intercalations using a large-scale approach including eastern Africa and the western Arabian peninsula. Starting from a new mapping in the Eritrean highland, the intertrappean beds resulted a continuous level that was a few tens of meters thick and traceable for some tens of kilometers. They consist of fluvial red, green and gray mudstones and siltstones with subordinate channelized pebbly sandstones, and lignite seams. Two new Ar-Ar datings constraint the age of the intertrappean beds between 29.0 Ma and 23.6 Ma. The outcrops near Mendefera have yielded the remains of two proboscidean families, the Deinotheriidae and the Gomphoteriidae. The morphological grade of the two Mendefera proboscideans would suggest a more derived stage than that of representatives of the same families from other Oligocene African sites (e.g., Chilga, Ethiopia). An Oligocene age could be inferred for them. The occurrence of the genus Prodeinotherium at Mai Gobro possibly represents the first occurrence of this taxon, while the Gomphotheirum sp. might represent the oldest occurrence of this taxon in Africa before its dispersal towards Asia and Europe. Proboscideans have also been found in the lowland intertrappean beds of Dogali near Massawa. These sediments were contiguous with the Eritrean highland intertrappean beds during the Oligocene, but are now tectonically displaced from them by two thousand meters of vertical topographical distance. Dogali is also known for the occurrence of possible Deinotheriidae remains and the primitive elephantoid Eritreum. Entering the Ethiopian highland, an inspection of the Agere Selam (Mekele) intertrappean beds revealed the occurrence of lacustrine limestones and diatomites, which were contrastingly quite subordinate with respect to the fine clastic sediments found in the nearby Amba Alaji area. Further south, the intertrappean section in the Jema valley (100 km north of Addis Ababa and close to the Blue Nile gorge) is 120 m thick with predominant clastic sediments and a few diatomites at the top. Literature information from 35 additional sites, including northern Kenya, Yemen, Sudan and Saudi Arabia sections, confirms the fluvial and lacustrine depositional environment of the intertrappean beds, underlines the interest in their mammal fauna (Chilga, Losodok), and reports exploitable coal seams for some of them. As for the vegetal landscape in which the intertrappean beds were deposited, pollen and plant analysis results indicative of a tropical wet forest, similar to that of present-day western Africa. Another common feature of the intertrappean beds is their relatively limited thickness, averaging a few tens of meters, but reaching a few hundred meters in graben-related basins, such as Delbi Moye in southern Ethiopia. In most cases only thin, lens-shaped successions were deposited above the hummocky topography of their volcanic substratum, commonly unaffected by significant faulting. An average duration of the intertrappean beds is from one to three million years. This time interval is commonly matched by a few tens (or more rarely, hundreds) of meters of sediments left over after erosive episodes or depositional starvation. As to the lateral continuity of the intertrappean beds, the present-day outcrops show large differences: from some tens of kilometers in the Mendefera area, to a few tens of kilometres in the Jema valley, and to a few hundreds meters in the Agere Selam (Mekele) area. Even if it is difficult to quantify the original size of the sedimentation areas, it nevertheless proves that the intertrappean basins exceed thousands of square kilometers in only a single case (Mendefera), but were quite restricted in most cases. Their most likely endorheic and local character, together with a regional ill-defined fluvial network, was the effect of a water-course rerouting caused by the progressive rising of the eastern African and Arabian plateaux. Chronological constraints for the intertrappean beds can be inferred from the age of the hosting Trap succession and by the stratigraphical position that they occupy. Intervolcanic sedimentary episodes are typically found in the basaltic and subordinately rhyolitic successions that followed the 31-29 Ma old basaltic widespread paroxysm. With due caveats deriving from the discontinuous availability of datings specifically dedicated to this issue, we regard the age of the intertrappean beds as mostly encompassed in the interval from 29 to 27 Ma at the transition between the Early and Late Oligocene in the Ethiopia/Yemen Trap core. In marginal areas, such as SW Arabia, Eritrea and Kenya, the volcanic activity above the intertrappean beds resumed later, and its quiescence allowed a more prolonged period of sedimentation. The intertrappean beds fall in the second cooling event of the Oligocene climatic deterioration. During the contemporaneous apparent drop in the global sea-level and closure of the Tethyan Ocean between Arabia and southwestern Asia, connections were established between the African and the Eurasian continents. At that time, southwestern Asia was experiencing severe aridity with faunal exchanges toward the luxuriously vegetated eastern Africa.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)463-489
JournalJournal of African Earth Sciences
Issue number2
Early online date23 Nov 2013
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014


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