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Investigations of lithospheric foundering and related magmatism have long focused on the central Andes, where there are postulated links between the eruption of mantle-derived lavas and periodic loss of the lower lithosphere. Whole-rock elemental and Nd-Sr-Pb isotopic results from a suite of late Miocene–Quaternary mafic lavas erupted onto the Puna Plateau clarify the relationship between this hypothesized process and lava composition. Zinc and Fe provide a critical perspective because they are partitioned differently during the melting of asthenospheric and lithospheric mantle. All Puna lavas have Zn/FeT (×104) values >13, which requires clinopyroxene and perhaps garnet to be the dominant phase(s) in the melt source; this precludes a melt source of typical mantle asthenosphere. This result is contrary to classic models of delamination magmatism that suggest asthenospheric peridotite melts to generate these lavas. Pyroxenite (±garnet)–bearing lithospheric materials in the central Andes are likely common and heterogeneous in age, volatile content, and mineralogical composition, and if they are the melt source, this can explain the diversity in the elemental (La/Yb = 11–45; La/Ta = 22–40) and isotopic (87Sr/86Sr = 0.7055–0.7080; ε Nd = −1 to −7) compositions of these mafic magmas (MgO > 8%, Mg number > 60). We propose that compositionally diverse, gravitationally unstable pyroxenites both drive “dripping” of the lower lithosphere and are the source of the resulting melt. We also postulate that mantle-derived lavas erupted on the Puna Plateau were generated during localized foundering and melting of these materials. The cumulative effect of these drip events is a modern Puna Plateau with geodynamic anomalies including thin lithosphere and anomalously high surface elevation.

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