The Taklimakan Desert is the world's second-largest shifting sand desert, located in the rain shadow of the Tibetan Plateau. The initiation of desert formation in the Asian interior is one of the most prominent climate changes in the Northern Hemisphere during the Cenozoic Era. Dating the earliest formation of this desert is important for understanding the climatic effects of the uplifted Tibetan Plateau. Here we report 1071-m-thick Neogene deposits with intercalated eolian dune sands from the only outcrop in the central Taklimakan Desert. Based on paleomagnetic measurements, biostratigraphic age control, and previous electron spin resonance dating results, the oldest in situ eolian dune sands were confirmed to be ca. 7 Ma, much older than the previous reported wind-blown siltstone from the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert. This new result indicates that desert conditions initiated ca. 7 Ma in the center of the Tarim Basin. We attribute this event to the late Cenozoic climatic deterioration and/or to the rain-shadow effect caused by late Miocene uplift of the northern Tibetan margin.

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