Large rivers are the arteries of continents. Those originating from the Tibetan Plateau and traversing East Asia have a relatively young history due to continuous Cenozoic perturbations. However, it has been a long journey to reconstruct their genesis and dynamic evolution, in which many puzzles and challenges remain. The river history is documented by provenance information in the ultimate sediment sinks in the East and South China Seas, but a regional-scale correlation of provenance data is still developing. Here, we explore the promise of this provenance perspective by reconstructing the evolution of three large rivers in China (the Yangtze, Pearl, and Red Rivers) by compiling and reevaluating a large volume of published provenance data (zircon U-Pb geochronology, K-feldspar Pb isotopes, and whole-rock Nd isotopes) from both Cenozoic strata and modern sediments from the East and South China Seas and the large river basins. Unlike traditional approaches that average provenance signatures, intersample variability was carefully evaluated. The general inheritance of zircon age spectral patterns and small fluctuations of Nd isotopes in the Neogene strata suggest provenance stabilization in the East and South China Seas and the establishment of near-modern drainage configurations. The paleodrainage basins before the Miocene are interpreted to have been smaller than their modern sizes, and drainage expansion likely occurred over the Oligocene. Our analysis suggests that the widely accepted models that link drainage between the ancient Yangtze and Red Rivers may be unlikely. The compiled provenance signatures and prior paleocurrent measurements of Paleogene strata distributed in the southeastern Tibetan Plateau margin show sediment supplied from local terranes instead of through-flowing river systems.

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