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Shifting sediment sources in the world's longest river: a strontium isotope record for the Holocene Nile

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

  • Jamie Woodward
  • Mark Macklin
  • Laura Fielding
  • Ian Millar
  • Neal Spencer
  • Derek Welsby
  • Martin Williams
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>15/12/2015
<mark>Journal</mark>Quaternary Science Reviews
Number of pages17
Pages (from-to)124-140
Publication StatusPublished
Early online date18/11/15
<mark>Original language</mark>English


We have reconstructed long-term shifts in catchment sediment sources by analysing, for the first time, the strontium (Sr) and neodymium (Nd) isotope composition of dated floodplain deposits in the Desert Nile. The sediment load of the Nile has been dominated by material from the Ethiopian Highlands for much of the Holocene, but tributary wadis and aeolian sediments in Sudan and Egypt have also made major contributions to valley floor sedimentation. The importance of these sources has shifted dramatically in response to global climate changes. During the African Humid Period, before c. 4.5 ka, when stronger boreal summer insolation produced much higher rainfall across North Africa, the Nile floodplain in northern Sudan shows a tributary wadi input of 40–50%. Thousands of tributary wadis were active at this time along the full length of the Saharan Nile in Egypt and Sudan. As the climate became drier after 4.5 ka, the valley floor shows an abrupt fall in wadi inputs and a stronger Blue Nile/Atbara contribution. In the arid New Kingdom and later periods, in palaeochannel fills on the margins of the valley floor, aeolian sediments replace wadi inputs as the most important secondary contributor to floodplain sedimentation. Our sediment source data do not show a measurable contribution from the White Nile to the floodplain deposits of northern Sudan over the last 8500 years. This can be explained by the distinctive hydrology and sediment delivery dynamics of the upper Nile basin. High strontium isotope ratios observed in delta and offshore records – that were previously ascribed to a stronger White Nile input during the African Humid Period – may have to be at least partly reassessed. Our floodplain Sr records also have major implications for bioarchaeologists who carry out Sr isotope-based investigations of ancient human remains in the Nile Valley because the isotopic signature of Nile floodplain deposits has shifted significantly over time.