Changes in northeast African hydrology and vegetation associated with Pliocene–Pleistocene sapropel cycles
East African climate change since the Late Miocene consisted of persistent shorter-term, orbital-scale wet–dry cycles superimposed upon a long-term trend towards more open, grassy landscapes. Either or both of these modes of palaeoclimate variability may have influenced East African mammalian evolution, yet the interrelationship between these secular and orbital palaeoclimate signals remains poorly understood. Here, we explore whether the long-term secular climate change was also accompanied by significant changes at the orbital-scale. We develop northeast African hydroclimate and vegetation proxy data for two 100 kyr-duration windows near 3.05 and 1.75 Ma at ODP Site 967 in the eastern Mediterranean basin, where sedimentation is dominated by eastern Sahara dust input and Nile River run-off. These two windows were selected because they have comparable orbital configurations and bracket an important increase in East African C4 grasslands. We conducted high-resolution (2.5 kyr sampling) multiproxy biomarker, H- and C-isotopic analyses of plant waxes and lignin phenols to document orbital-scale changes in hydrology, vegetation and woody cover for these two intervals. Both intervals are dominated by large-amplitude, precession-scale (approx. 20 kyr) changes in northeast African vegetation and rainfall/run-off. The δ13Cwax values and lignin phenol composition record a variable but consistently C4 grass-dominated ecosystem for both intervals (50–80% C4). Precessional δDwax cycles were approximately 20–30‰ in peak-to-peak amplitude, comparable with other δDwax records of the Early Holocene African Humid Period. There were no significant differences in the means or variances of the δDwax or δ13Cwax data for the 3.05 and 1.75 Ma intervals studied, suggesting that the palaeohydrology and palaeovegetation responses to precessional forcing were similar for these two periods. Data for these two windows suggest that the eastern Sahara did not experience the significant increase in C4 vegetation that has been observed in East Africa over this time period. This observation would be consistent with a proposed mechanism whereby East African precipitation is reduced, and drier conditions established, in response to the emergence of modern zonal sea surface temperature gradients in the tropical oceans between 3 and 2 Ma.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Major transitions in human evolution’.