Early to middle Pleistocene boulder deposits are common features on southern Nevada hillslopes. These darkly varnished, ancient colluvial deposits stand but in stark contrast to the underlying light-colored bedrock of volcanic tuffs, and they serve as minor divides between drainage channels on modern hillslopes. To demonstrate the antiquity of these stable hillslope features, six colluvial boulder deposits from Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada, were dated by cation- ratio dating of rock varnish accreted on boulder surfaces. Estimated minimum ages of these boulder deposits range from 760 to 170 ka. Five additional older deposits on nearby Skull and Little Skull Mountains and Buckboard Mesa yielded cation-ratio minimum-age estimates of 1.38 Ma to 800 ka. An independent cosmogenic chlorine-36 surface exposure date was obtained on one deposit, which confirms an estimated early to middle Quaternary age. These deposits have provided the oldest age estimates for unconsolidated hillslope deposits in the southwestern United States.
We suggest that the colluvial boulder deposits were produced during early and middle Pleistocene glacial/pluvial episodes and were stabilized during the transition to drier interglacial climates. By comparison to modern periglacial environments, winter minimum monthly temperatures of -3 to -5 °C were necessary to initiate freeze-thaw conditions of such vigor to physically weather relatively large volumes of large boulders from the upper hillslopes of the Yucca Mountain area. These conditions imply that early and middle Pleistocene glacial winter temperatures were at least 1 to 3 °C colder than existed during the last Pleistocene glacial episode and 7 to 9 °C colder than present. We conclude that at least several early and middle Pleistocene glacial episodes were colder, and perhaps wetter, than glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene in the southern Great Basin.
Geomorphic processes necessary to form these colluvial boulder deposits are not active on modern hillslopes in the southern Great Basin. In addition, the lack of young, relatively unvarnished colluvial boulder deposits on these hillslopes suggests that boulder-forming conditions did not exist during the late Pleistocene in this region.
Modern semiarid hillslope processes primarily erode colluvium during infrequent high-intensity storms. The preservation of old, thin hillslope deposits and the less-than-2-m incision by hillslope runoff adjacent to these deposits, however, indicate that extremely low denudation rates have occurred on resistant volcanic hillslopes in the southern Great Basin during Quaternary time.