A 40,000-year record of vegetation and fire history from the Tate Vondo region, Northeastern Southpansberg, South Africa.
Records from the Quaternary period are used to confirm possible inferred climatic changes, reveal the responses of species to these changes, and serve as an archive against which modern environmental dynamics can be assessed. Fueled by a need to understand current climatic changes, the call for palaeoclimatic research in the southern African subregion has become more compelling. In southern Africa, such research has been largely restricted to springs and swamps as the subregion lacks natural lakes, with some exception of a few coastal lakes such as Lake Sibaya and Lake Eteza. Due to the arid and semi-arid landscapes which prevail in southern Africa, there is a paucity of suitable sedimentary deposits in the region. The highly organic peat deposit of Mutale Wetland, situated in the Tate Vondo region of the northeastern Soutpansberg presents an ideal opportunity for conducting palaeoenvironmental research. The Mutale Wetland contains relatively old sediments dating back to >30,000 cal years BP, placing this record within the late Quaternary period. Palaeoenvironmental techniques including radiocarbon, pollen and charcoal analyses were applied to produce a palaeoenvironmental reconstruction for Tate Vondo. A 302 cm sedimentary core was extracted from the Mutale Wetland. Detailed analyses show that prior to ca. 34,000 cal yr BP, conditions were fairly warm and dry. This is inferred from a dominance of open grassland vegetation. An expansion of Podocarpus forests together with an increase in fynbos elements suggest a shift to cool, subhumid conditions during the LGM. Cooler conditions persisted until ca. 12,000 cal yr BP. Thereafter, a climatic amelioration was experienced. The appearance of low charcoal concentrations throughout the late Pleistocene suggests that fire was infrequent. Between ca. 4000 – 1500 cal yr BP, conditions became warmer and drier, inferred from the development of arid savanna vegetation. The sharp increase in charcoal after ca. 4000 cal yr BP, broadly coinciding with the arrival of the first agriculturalists in the area, has implications for the history of human occupation in the Soutpansberg rather than shifts in climate. The succession from savanna to fynbos vegetation together with expanded forests implies a return to cool and moist conditions from ca. 1500 – 400 cal yr BP. Arid savanna persists from ca. 400 to the present, implying warmer and drier conditions towards the present day. Furthermore, from ca. 400 cal yr BP, the pollen and charcoal record indicate that the majority of recent changes in vegetation have been driven by anthropogenic activity. This record has contributed to an improved understanding of late Quaternary changes in climate, vegetation history and human impact in the northeastern Soutpansberg.