In designing the contents of this chapter I adopted a personal view, for the subject is highly diversified and seems to be too large for a systematic or comprehensive review. I focus on facets of the subject that have stimulated my curiosity and sense of history and have reinforced my holistic view of environmental change, but I also deal with facets that have prompted specific questions by thoughtful students and colleagues—or, more directly, the more cynical question, “What’s so great about the Quaternary?”
Quaternary research involves in one way or another virtually all of the disciplines within the physical sciences, as well as certain aspects of biology, archaeology, and documentary history. Its vigor during the past two decades is illustrated by the introduction of four international journals—Quaternary Research (U.S.) in 1970, Boreas (Nordic countries) in 1972, Journal of Quaternary Science (Britain) in 1982, and Quaternary Science Reviews (London) in 1982—and by the organization of national associations in the United States, Canada, Britain, and several other countries, to say nothing of regional groups like the Friends of the Pleistocene.
But first the source of the strange term Quaternary should be clarified, and why it is spelled with only two r’s. In the early nineteenth century the hypothetical geologic time scale was subdivided into four parts, the Primary being represented by the primordial crystalline rocks of the Earth’s origin, the Secondary by fossiliferous marine rocks derived from the Primary and then consolidated and commonly deformed, the Tertiary by sediments derived from preexisting rocks and containing some extant fossil groups, and the Quaternary by materials derived from preexisting rocks but not consolidated.