The initiation and evolution of the River Nile

Laura Fielding, Yani Najman, Ian Millar, Peter Butterworth, Eduardo Garzanti, Giovanni Vezzoli, Dan Barford, Benjamin Charles Kneller

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The Nile is generally regarded as the longest river in the world. Knowledge of the
timing of the Nile’s initiation as a major river is important to a number of research questions. For example, the timing of the river’s establishment as a catchment of continental proportions can be used to document surface uplift of its Ethiopian upland drainage, with implications for constraining rift tectonics. Furthermore, the time of major freshwater input to the Mediterranean is considered to be an important factor in the development of sapropels. Yet the river’s initiation as a major drainage is currently constrained no more precisely than Eocene to Pleistocene.
Within the modern Nile catchment, voluminous Cenozoic Continental Flood Basalts (CFBs) are unique to the Ethiopian Highlands; thus first detection of their presence in the Nile delta record indicates establishment of the river’s drainage at continental proportions at that time. We present the first detailed multiproxy provenance study of Oligocene-Recent Nile delta cone sediments. We demonstrate the presence of Ethiopian CFB detritus in the Nile delta from the start of our studied record (c. 31 Ma) by (1) documenting the presence of zircons with U-Pb ages unique, within the Nile catchment, to the Ethiopian CFBs and (2) using Sr-Nd data to construct a mixing model which indicates a contribution from the CFBs. We thereby show that the Nile river was
established as a river of continental proportions by Oligocene times. We use
petrography and heavy mineral data to show that previous petrographic provenance studies which proposed a Pleistocene age for first arrival of Ethiopian CFBs in the Nile delta did not take into account the strong diagenetic influence on the samples.
We use a range of techniques to show that sediments were derived from Phanerozoic sedimentary rocks that blanket North Africa, Arabian-Nubian Shield basement terranes, and Ethiopian CFB’s. We see no significant input from Archaean cratons supplied directly via the White Nile in any of our samples. Whilst there are subtle differences between our Nile delta samples from the Oligocene and Pliocene compared to those from the Miocene and Pleistocene, the overall stability of our signal throughout the delta record, and its similarity to the modern Nile signature, indicates no major change in the Nile’s drainage from Oligocene to present day.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)166-178
Number of pages13
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date9 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2018


  • River Nile
  • Nile Delta
  • detrital geochronology
  • isotopic provenance studies


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