Modern alluvial plains, in contrast to their pre-Silurian counterparts, are characterized by the presence of meandering rivers in low-downstream-gradient areas, constituting efficient transport systems that maintain high bottom shear stresses in deep channels, which are made possible by bank stabilization, most commonly provided by vegetation in Earth’s recent history. Here we show, through numerical modeling and field-based description of large-scale exposures in Mesoproterozoic successions, that prevegetation rivers in low-downstream-gradient areas were markedly different from both younger meandering rivers and the common prevegetation sheet-braided rivers, showing deeper braided channels and greater floodplain preservation than the latter. These systems were less frequent and had lower transport efficiency than modern meandering rivers, implying differences in global-scale Earth-surface dynamics, from the weathering of silicate minerals in floodplains to the grain size distribution in all clastic depositional systems.

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