Geological and soil maps of the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain for the Last Glacial Maximum

Hayley C. Cawthra, Richard M. Cowling, Sergio Andò, Curtis W. Marean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

42 Scopus citations


The South African Cape South Coast is bordered by one of the broadest continental shelves in Africa. The Agulhas Bank, inshore shelf and presently exposed coastal plain make up the Palaeo-Agulhas Plain (PAP), though our area of study extends beyond this limit and as far inland as the first mountain belt. Quaternary sea levels have been significantly lower than at present for ∼90% of the Pleistocene, exposing a terrestrial ecosystem on what is now the submerged shelf. The presently drowned component makes up 94% of the total area of the PAP. Past work has hypothesised a contrast in character of this submerged landscape when compared to the subaerial environment. Here, we assimilate newly-acquired geophysical and geological datasets to produce geological- and soil maps from the Last Glacial Maximum on a scale of 1:750,000, covering an area of ∼55,000 km. Three broad geomorphic zones are defined, including the Western section from Cape Agulhas to Cape Infanta, the Central section from Cape Infanta to Knysna and the Eastern section extending eastward of Knysna. We demonstrate that Mesozoic sedimentary deposits crop out near the surface on this current-swept shelf and soils derived from siltstone and shale bedrock are prominent when the coast is up to 64 km distant from the modern shoreline at its maximum point. Beyond this, weathered limestone dominates the substrate sequences on the Agulhas Bank. We show that the submerged landscape was a unique terrestrial environment and that there is no exact modern-day analogue in the region other than a small (∼70 km2) area located at the edge of the Agulhas Plain near Cape Agulhas, and map major contrasts in the geological, topographic and edaphic nature of the landscape from the onshore to the offshore. The expansion of this plain is coupled with exaggerated floodplains, meandering shallowly incised rivers and wetlands. The submerged shelf is dominated by fertile soils compared to the dissected onshore belt, and extensive calcareous dunefields extending up to 10 km inland from their associated palaeoshorelines covered much of the emergent shelf. Sedimentary bedforms may have obstructed or slowed drainage as suggested by leached palaeosols and carbonate mixing observed in petrographic thin sections and grain mounts. The data show a low-relief “plains” landscape, which contrasts strongly to the topographically complex contemporary coastal foreland.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105858
JournalQuaternary Science Reviews
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • Cape south coast
  • Marine geology
  • Palaeolandscape
  • Pleistocene geological map
  • Pleistocene soil map
  • South Africa
  • Submerged landscape

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology
  • Geology


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