Palaeodrainage evolution of the large rivers of East Asia, and Himalayan-Tibet tectonics

Peng Zhang, Yani Najman*, Lianfu Mei, Ian Millar, Edward R. Sobel, Andrew Carter, Dan Barfod, Bruno Dhuime, Eduardo Garzanti, Gwladys Govin, Giovanni Vezzoli, Xiaolin Hu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

34 Citations (Scopus)
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Understanding the tectonics that gave rise to the formation of Tibet is critical to our understanding of crustal deformation processes. The unusual geomorphology of the drainage basins of East Asia's major rivers has been proposed to be the result of either (1) distortion and attenuation of antecedent drainages as India indents into Asia, which can therefore be used as passive strain markers of horizontal shear, or (2) due to fragmentation by river captures and flow reversals of an originally continental-scale drainage, in which the major East Asian rivers once flowed into the palaeo-Red River. If the latter hypothesis is correct, then it has been proposed that dating the drainage fragmentation constrains the timing of uplift of Tibet. A number of sedimentary provenance studies have been undertaken in order to determine whether the palaeo-Red River was once a river of continental proportions into which the upper reaches of the Yangtze, Salween, Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Yarlung drained. We have assessed the evidence that the Yarlung originally flowed into the palaeo-Red river, and then sequentially into the Irrawaddy and Brahmaputra, connecting to the latter first via the Lohit and then the Siang. For this river system, we have integrated our new data from the Paleogene-Recent Irrawaddy drainage basin (detrital zircon U-Pb with Hf and fission track, rutile U-Pb, mica Ar-Ar, bulk rock Sr-Nd, and petrography) with previously published data, to produce a palaeodrainage model that is consistent with all datasets. In our model, the Yarlung never flowed into the Irrawaddy drainage: during the Paleogene, the Yarlung suture zone was an internally drained basin, and from Neogene times onwards the Yarlung drained into the Brahmaputra in the Bengal Basin. The Central Myanmar Basin, through which the Irrawaddy River flows today, received predominantly locally-derived detritus until the Middle Eocene, the Irrawaddy initiated as a through-going river draining the Mogok Metamorphic Belt and Bomi-Chayu granites to the north sometime in the Late Eocene to Early Oligocene, and the river was dominated by a stable MMB-dominated drainage throughout the Neogene to present day. Existing evidence does not support any connection between the Yarlung and the Red River in the past, but there is a paucity of suitable palaeo-Red River deposits with which to make a robust comparison. We argue that this limitation also precludes a robust assessment of a palaeo-connection between the Yangtze/Salween/Mekong and the Red River; it is difficult to unequivocally interpret the recorded provenance changes as the result of specific drainage reorganisations. We highlight the palaeo-Red River deposits of the Hanoi Basin as a potential location for future research focus in view of the near-complete Cenozoic record of palaeo-Red River deposits at this location. A majority of previous studies consider that if a major continental-scale drainage ever existed at all, it fragmented early in the Cenozoic. Such a viewpoint would agree with the growing body of evidence from palaeoaltitude studies that large parts of SE Tibet were uplifted by this period. This then leads towards the intriguing question as to the mechanisms which caused the major period of river incision in the Miocene in this region.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)601-630
Number of pages30
JournalEarth-Science Reviews
Early online date15 Feb 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2019


  • Central Myanmar Basin
  • Eastern Tibet
  • Irrawaddy River
  • Palaeodrainage
  • Red River
  • Yarlung Tsangpo


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