Annual report 2004

Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS)

Philip GIBBARDChairman, SQS
Godwin Institute of Quaternary Research, Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, CAMBRIDGE CB2 3EN, England.
Tel:  +44 (0)1223 333924;  Fax: +44 (0)1223 333392,  E-mail:


Rationalisation of global chronostratigraphical classification.
Intercalibration of fossil biostratigraphies, integrated zonation and recognition of global datum points.

Definition of Subseries/Series boundaries and selection of global stratotype sections.
Correlation of Quaternary rock successions and events, including terrestrial to marine sequences.

The objectives satisfy the IUGS mandate of fostering international agreement on nomenclature and classification in stratigraphy; facilitating international co-operation in geological research; improving publication, dissemination, and use of geological information internationally; encouraging new relationships between and among disciplines of science that relate to Quaternary geology world-wide; attracting competent students and research workers to the discipline; and fostering an increased awareness among individual scientists world-wide of what related programmes are being undertaken.


SQS is a Subcommission of the Commission on Stratigraphy.

Officers (chairman, two vice-chairmen, secretary), voting members (20).  (see Appendix for complete listing).  There are currently three Working Groups established the remit of which is there definition of GSSPs for the Early-Middle, Middle/Late Plesistocene and Late

Pleistocene/Holocene boundaries.

These individuals represent a broad spectrum of specialised stratigraphical disciplines from throughout the World. Publication of information is by website.

3a.  Nominated Officers for 2004-2008:

Chairman: Dr. Philip Gibbard
Godwin Institute of Quaternary Research
Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EN, England

Vice-Chair: Dr. Jerry McManus
Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institute
Wood’s Hole, MA, USA

2nd Vice-Chair: Dr. John van Couvering
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79 St., New York, NY 10024 USA
Tel: 212-769-5657; Fax: 212-769-5653

Secretary: Dr. Thijs van Kolfschoten
Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University
Reuvenplaats 4, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands


Support of the Chairman’s University (University of Cambridge), and the International Quaternary Association (INQUA).


Three GSSP Working Groups are established and all have fully functioning formal working groups.

The Working Group on Lower-Middle Pleistocene boundary began in November 2002 and currently comprises 11 members: Brad Pillans (Australia, Chair), Thijs Van Kolfschoten (The Netherlands), Andrei Dodonov (Russia), Anastasia Markova (Russia), Lui Jiaqi (China), Charles Turner (UK), Luc Lourens (The Netherlands), Martin Head (UK), Cesare Ravazzi (Italy), Craig Feibel (USA) and Tom Meijer (The Netherlands).

The 32nd IGC Congress in Florence, in August, enabled many members of the Working Group to meet and discuss current and future activities.

A symposium entitled “Early-Middle Pleistocene transition”, convened by Phil Gibbard and Thijs van Kolfschoten, included 7 oral and 6 poster presentations.  After the symposium, a meeting of the working group was held, chaired by Brad Pillans and attended by 9 members and 7 other conference attendees. The meeting passed two significant resolutions:

  1. That the Early -Middle Pleistocene boundary be defined in a marine section at a point “close to” the Matuyama/Brunhes magnetic boundary.
  2. That a GSSP should not be defined in a marine core, but in a marine section exposed on-land.

A second symposium “Pleistocene chronostratigraphic subdivision and stratigraphic boundaries in the mammalian record” was convened by Neri Ciaranfi, Phil Gibbard and Anastasia Markova, which included 9 oral and 7 poster presentations. Two candidate GSSPs in southern Italy were described – Montalbano Jorica section and Valle di Manche section.

Following the Florence meeting, Dr Pillans received information on a third candidate GSSP: the Chiba section in Japan.  A fourth potential candidate section (Castlecliff, Wanganui Basin, New Zealand) is ruled out because it is a shallow-water section and contains significant unconformities.  Other potential GSSPs may be considered if they are brought to the attention of the working group within the near future.

The first meeting of the Working Group on the Middle/Late Pleistocene boundary, chaired by Professor Thomas Litt (Bonn, Germany), was held in Bonn, Germany 19-20 March 2004. The aim was to begin selecting sites for a potential boundary stratotype.

Phil Gibbard (Cambridge) summarised the present state of the discussion: this boundary is not formally defined, but has been placed at the beginning of the Last Interglacial (Eemian, Mikulino, Sangamonian etc.), since the 1930s.  More recently it has been placed at the base of Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 5 by Richmond (1996).  Although it may seem attractive to define the boundary in an ocean sediment sequence, the inherent imprecision of most of such sequences, resulting from slow sedimentation rate, combined with the effects of bioturbation, suggests that for high-resolution stratigraphical purposes they are generally unsuitable for the definition of golden spike-type, time-plane boundaries.  It is therefore proposed that the Saalian-Eemian stage boundary, and thus the Middle-Upper Pleistocene Subseries boundary-stratotype be defined from a terrestrial locality (Amsterdam-Terminal borehole).  This parastratotype locality is also to be proposed as the Eemian Stage unit-stratotype for NW Europe.

Aleid Bosch (Utrecht) informed about the stratotype of the Eemian in the Netherlands. He gave further information about the parastratotype locality at 63.5 m below surface in the Amsterdam-Terminal borehole, The Netherlands (52E0913: 52 22 45N; 4 54 52E) which is the best for the Eemian in the Netherlands.

Thomas Litt (Bonn) and Charles Turner (Cambridge) discussed the correlation and synchronisation of Eemian sequences in continental Europe based on palynological data.

Jerry McManus (Woods Hole) informed about the potential of the oxygen isotope signal for global correlation based on benthic foraminifera.  He demonstrated the importance of the Heinrich Event H11 at the onset of MISubstage 5e for correlation in the North Atlantic region and adjacent areas.
Wighart von Koenigswald (Bonn) summarised the state of the art concerning micro-mammalian stratigraphy. He described the potential of the transition between Arvicola cantianus and A. terrestris during the beginning of the Last Interglacial in northern central Europe, however he underlined the regional variability caused by migration processes.

The final discussion has shown that the difficulties posed by using boreholes as type-localities, because of potential problems arising for access and lateral correlation etc., should not be underestimated. However, the lack of exposures in the type area necessitate the use of a reference borehole for this purpose.

It was agreed that it is important to select several parastratotypes for the Middle/Upper Pleistocene boundary both in the continental and marine environment.

To make further progress and to get financial support for regular annual meetings and workshops, Thomas Litt will prepare a proposal which will be sent to DFG (German Research Foundation) and eventually to IGCP.

The Working Group on the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary is chaired by Professor Mike Walker (University of Wales, Lampeter).  The Working Group draws on the expertise of the INTIMATE (Integration of Ice-core, Marine and Terrestrial Records) Group which is, in turn, a Working Group of the INQUA Palaeoclimate Commission. Accordingly, it includes ice-core, marine and terrestrial scientists. The intention is to define the GSSP/GSSA for the base of the Holocene in the new NorthGRIP ice core (Nature, 2004, 431, 147-151) from which a high-resolution, multi-parameter proxy climate record is in the process of being generated.  The aim will be to define the base of the Holocene with a temporalresolution of 10 yr, or possibly even less.

Once that boundary has been defined, it is intended to bring forward proposals for suitable parastratotypes in marine and terrestrial sequences in both the northern and southern hemispheres.  The broad technical and geographical expertise of the Working Group should ensure that the most appropriate parastratotypes are designated.

In addition to the Working Group activities noted above, the Subcommission website continues to be expanded at:  This site is used as the main line of communication for the Subcommission.  The pages are maintained by Phil Gibbard.

In July, a substantial correlation chart for the chronostratigraphy of the last 2.7 million years was published (cf. Science Plan task 9c, below).  In co-operation with the Royal Dutch Shell BV company, 200 copies of the poster at A3 size and 50 copies at A2 size were produced and distributed free of charge.  The posters were also distributed at meetings over the last 6 months, including the IGC in Florence and a series of Quaternary conferences.  The poster will be published in the international journal Boreas in the first issue of 2005, for which we thank, the editor Professor Jan Piotrowski (Århus) for his support.

At the International Geological Congress in Florence, an open meeting of the Subcommission was held. This very productive meeting was attended by over 30 people.  Apart from the normal work of the Subcommission, two major topics were discussed: 1. Proposal for new Working Group, and 2. The status of the term ‘Quaternary’.

The former concerned the establishment of a working group to compile regional sequences. During the compilation of the correlation chart it had become clear that there were many regional stage division systems for the Quaternary and that it would be desirable to assemble and catalogue these schemes. Dr Wim Westerhoff (The Netherlands) has been invited to establish a working group for this enterprise.

The second concerned the need to formulate a Subcommission response to the matter of the attempted suppression of the term Quaternary, as a formal System-status unit, by the ICS Executive.  Much has been said about the status of the Quaternary in the past two years. The publication of a new geological time scale, in which the Neogene extended to the present day, had increased the intensity of this debate, particularly since it was apparently made by members of the ICS without consultation with Quaternary workers.

It was repeatedly noted through the year that the decision to eliminate the Quaternary was unacceptable for the vast majority of the Quaternary workers. Arguments mentioned included:

It is a well-established chronostratigraphical term that has been in use for over 150 years.
The term has been adopted not only for the time period but also for the identification of a substantial community of workers (geologists, geomorphologists, archaeologists, biologists, oceanographers, climatologists etc.)
Although relatively short it is nevertheless highly distinct in that it is characterised by short term climatic oscillations that have given rise to continental scale glaciations, sea-level changes and accompanying plant and animal migrations on a scale not seen in the previous periods.
The evolution and extinction of mammals (including hominins) is very distinct.
The term Quaternary is strongly established not only in academic circles but in general, popular scientific literature. Lumping the last 17 million years will confuse the general public.

During this discussions the participants voted on two proposals:

  1. Should the Quaternary be maintained as a formal chronostratigraphic unit?
  2. Should the Quaternary be kept at system rank or subsystem rank?

The first question was carried by 25 in favour and 1 against and the second proposal was carried by 22 in favour, 1 against and 3 abstentions.  The results of these discussions were communicated to the ICS Executive by the SQS board.

In order to strengthen the interchange of information between the INQUA Commission on Stratigraphy and Geochronology, the Secretary Valerie Hall (Queen’s University, Belfast) was invited by Phil Gibbard to become an ex-officio member of the Subcommission.


Following the deliberations and pressure from the community, the ICS Executive established a working group (‘task force’) on the definition of the Quaternary in November 2004.  This group are due to report to the meeting to be held in Leuven, Belgium in September 2005.  It was originally agreed that the group should comprise 6 representatives, three proposed by INQUA and three proposed by SQS, together with Jim Ogg as Secretary and a neutral chairman agreed by the two organisations.  However, subsequently the ICS Executive changed their opinion and appointed Phil Gibbard, Nick Shackleton and John van Couvering themselves without consultation with the SQS officers.  At the time of writing this working group is yet to begin its work.

All three working groups will continue to function in 2005.  It is likely that the Working Group on the Pleistocene-Holocene Boundary will be in a position to submit its proposal before the end of the year.  Other groups will also continue their deliberations.

As noted last year we are currently considering the possibility of establishing 1-2 additional working groups, possibly jointly with the INQUA Commission on Stratigraphy and Geochronology.  The first will be concerned with dating significant boundaries (including the GSSP and potential parastratotypes), particularly in the Early to early Middle Pleistocene.  This group would be chaired by Professor Valerie Hall.  A second working group to consider the formal chronostratigraphical/geochronological status of very short-time divisions (durations of 1-5 ky) currently being recognised in the late Quaternary, e.g. events, phases, oscillations etc.(sometimes referred to as ‘sub-Milankovitch scale oscillations’) may also be proposed.  As yet these groups have not been established because workers have too heavy a workload to begin their investigations.


Currency in British Pounds (£), based on an exchange rate of £1 GBP = 1.94028 US$ (6.12.04)

Actual costs 2004
Amount carried over from 2003                £1045
Amount received from ICS                        £529
General office expenses                           £100
Contribution towards cost of web-site        £10
Travel costs                                              £500
Current bank balance                                £1073

Proposed costs for 2004
General office expenses                            £100
Contribution towards cost of website           £10
Contributions to Working Groups                £400
Support for meetings                                   £400

Total 2004 budget                                      £900 ($1746)
AMOUNT REQUESTED                              £500 ($970)

Potential funding sources outside IUGS

Financial support will be sought by individual members from their grant-awarding bodies for specific projects such as research projects and meetings, but support has also been received from INQUA through interaction with the INQUA Commission on Stratigaphy and Geochronology.


The Science plan to be completed before the year 2008 will be as follows:

  1. Formalisation of Global Stratotype section and Points (GSSP) for the Lower/Middle and for the Middle/Upper subseries/subepoch boundaries of the Pleistocene Series/Epoch. The formal nomenclature for the subseries/subepoch divisions of the Pleistocene will be Lower/Early, Middle/Mid, and Upper/Late.
  2. Formalisation of a GSSA for the base of the Holocene Series/Epoch.
  3. An international correlation chart for the most commonly used regional stratigraphic units and isotope stages.  No international stage-level subdivisions for the Pleistocene or Holocene will be formalised.  This has now been completed and will be published in early 2005, as noted above.
  4. The voting members, and make-up of each GSSP task group, should strive to provide a uniform coverage of terrestrial, shallow-marine and pelagic settings with global coverage.
  5. Progress and discussions within the Subcommission will be summarised through an active SQS website.

Together the officers  “will compile a list of active persons willing to act as voting members.  The latter will consist of individuals who will represent the widest-possible range of Quaternary stratigraphical expertise and will include no more than two persons from each geographical region”. The full list is given below.