A chronological framework for the British Quaternary based on Bithynia opercula


Marine and ice-core records show that the Earth has experienced a succession of glacials and interglacials during the Quaternary (last 2.6 million years), although it is often difficult to correlate fragmentary terrestrial records with specific cycles. Aminostratigraphy is a method potentially able to link terrestrial sequences to the marine isotope stages (MIS) of the deep-sea record1,2. We have used new methods of extraction and analysis of amino acids, preserved within the calcitic opercula of the freshwater gastropod Bithynia, to provide the most comprehensive data set for the British Pleistocene based on a single dating technique. A total of 470 opercula from 74 sites spanning the entire Quaternary are ranked in order of relative age based on the extent of protein degradation, using aspartic acid/asparagine (Asx), glutamic acid/glutamine (Glx), serine (Ser), alanine (Ala) and valine (Val). This new aminostratigraphy is consistent with the stratigraphical relationships of stratotypes, sites with independent geochronology, biostratigraphy and terrace stratigraphy3,4,5,6. The method corroborates the existence of four interglacial stages between the Anglian (MIS 12) and the Holocene in the terrestrial succession. It establishes human occupation of Britain in most interglacial stages after MIS 15, but supports the notion of human absence during the Last Interglacial (MIS 5e)7. Suspicions that the treeless ‘optimum of the Upton Warren interstadial’ at Isleworth pre-dates MIS 3 are confirmed. This new aminostratigraphy provides a robust framework against which climatic, biostratigraphical and archaeological models can be tested.

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Figure 1: Intra-crystalline amino acid data from the opercula of Bithynia from sites in southern Britain.
Figure 2: Amino acid decomposition at sites of known age.
Figure 3: THAA versus FAA d/l Ala for individual samples in relation to terrace stratigraphy.
Figure 4: Mean THAA versus FAA d/l Ala in relation to the occurrence of archaeology.


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We thank D. Maddy, P. Allen, N. Ashton, D. Bain, M. Bates, S. Boreham, D. Bowen, R. Briant, C. Buckingham, J. Clayden, G. R. Coope, A. Cruickshanks, P. Dark, B. Demarchi, M. Greenwood, D. Kaufman, T. van Kolfschoten, H. Langford, S. Lewis, R. Markham, D. Mayhew, H. Roe, J. Rose, D. Schreve, R. Scott, K. Scott, C. Stringer, R.Waghorne, M. Warren and F. Wenban-Smith for providing some of the material analysed and general discussion. C. Helmsley and J. Todd released material from the Natural History Museum, London, for destructive analysis. R. Allen provided technical support. G. Peeters gave permission to reproduce images of Bithynia. The analyses were funded by English Heritage, NERC and the Wellcome Trust (grant GR076905MA). This is a contribution to the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Author information

K.E.H.P., M.J.C., R.C.P. and D.H.K. designed the study. R.C.P., D.H.K., T.M., D.R.B., S.A.P., T.S.W. and K.E.H.P. supplied samples. K.E.H.P. undertook the analyses and processed the data. K.E.H.P., M.J.C., R.C.P. and T.S.W. wrote the paper. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

Correspondence to Kirsty E. H. Penkman.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figure 1 and legend, a Supplementary Discussion on temperature estimates across the study, additional references and Supplementary Text concerning the Supplementary Data file (see separate file). (PDF 768 kb)

Supplementary Data 1-2

Supplementary Data 1/Location details together with key site information and references. This table includes additional MIS attributions that may have been reliant on either original A/I data or new IcPD data. Supplementary Data 2/Mean Ala D/L values tabulated against terrace stratigraphy for four representative river systems in southern Britain; tributary and non-fluvial sites are excluded (full data and references in Supplementary Data 1). Approximate height ranges relate to the occurrence of interglacial sediments above the modern river (taken from data given in 15,18,6,23) rather than the terrace surface (Fig. 2) Note the increasing Ala values with increasing terrace elevation (and therefore age) within each fluvial system. Terrace heights are not comparable between fluvial systems due to a variety of local factors. Within a fluvial system, terraces of differing age can overlap in height due to cut-and-fill terrace formation (see Fig. 1), so attributions in the original papers are made on the basis of geological mapping. (XLS 179 kb)

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Penkman, K., Preece, R., Bridgland, D. et al. A chronological framework for the British Quaternary based on Bithynia opercula. Nature 476, 446–449 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10305

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