High-resolution sedimentologic, biostratigraphic, and stable isotope data from numerous measured sections across Colorado reveal a complex architecture for lower Paleozoic strata in the central Cordilleran region. A lack of precise age control in previous studies had resulted in misidentification and miscorrelation of units between separate ranges. Corrections of these errors made possible by our improved data set indicate the following depositional history. The quartz-rich sandstone of the Sawatch Formation was deposited during onlap of the Precambrian erosion surface in the early Late Cambrian. The overlying Dotsero Formation, a regionally extensive carbonate- and shale-rich succession records blanket-like deposition with only minor facies changes across the state. An extremely widespread, meter-scale stromatolite bed, the Clinetop Bed, caps the Dotsero Formation in most areas. However, a latest Cambrian erosional episode removed 9–11 m of the upper Dotsero Formation, including the Clinetop Bed, from just east of the Homestake shear zone in the Sawatch Range eastward to the Mosquito Range.
The overlying Manitou Formation differs in character, and thus in member stratigraphy, on the east vs. west sides of the state. These differences were previously interpreted as the result of deposition on either side of a basement high that existed within the Central Colorado Embayment or Colorado “Sag,” a region of major breaching across the Transcontinental Arch. This paleogeographic reconstruction is shown herein to be an artifact of miscorrelation. Biostratigraphic data show that the northwestern members of the Manitou Formation are older than the members exposed in the southeastern part of the state and that there is little or no overlap in age between the two areas. This circumstance is the result of (1) removal of older Manitou Formation strata in the southeast by an unconformity developed during the Rossodus manitouensis conodont Zone, and (2) erosion of younger Manitou strata in central and western Colorado along Middle Ordovician and Devonian unconformities.
Deciphering these complex stratal geometries has led to invalidation of long-held views on western Laurentian paleogeography during the Cambrian and earliest Ordovician, specifically the existence of the Colorado Sag and a northeast-trending high within the sag that controlled depositional patterns on either side. The mid- Rossodus uplift and resultant unconformity eliminated any and all Upper Cambrian and Lower Ordovician deposits in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, and thus their absence should not be misconstrued as evidence for earlier nondeposition in this region. Lithofacies distribution patterns and isopach maps provide no evidence that highlands of the Transcontinental Arch existed in Colorado prior to the mid-Rossodus age uplift event. In fact, regional reconstructions of earliest Paleozoic paleogeography along the entire length of the purported Transcontinental Arch should be reevaluated with similarly precise biostratigraphic data to reconsider all potential causes for missing strata and to eliminate topographic elements not supported by multiple stratigraphic techniques. This study illustrates how seriously paleogeographic reconstructions can be biased by the presumption that missing strata represent periods of nondeposition rather than subsequent episodes of erosion, particularly in thin cratonic successions where stratigraphic gaps are common and often inconspicuous.