The Magallanes-Austral retroarc foreland basin of southernmost South America presents an excellent setting in which to examine interpretive methods for large detrital zircon data sets. The source regions for retroarc foreland basins generally, and the Magallanes-Austral Basin specifically, can be broadly divided into (1) the magmatic arc, (2) the fold-and-thrust belt, and (3) sources around the periphery of foreland flexural subsidence. In this study, we used an extensive detrital zircon data set (30 new, 87 previously published samples) that is complemented by a large modal provenance data set of 183 sandstone petrography samples (32 new, 151 previously published) and rare earth element geochemical analyses (130 previously published samples) to compare the results of empirical (multidimensional scaling) and interpretive (age binning based on source regions) treatments of detrital zircon data, ultimately to interpret the detailed evolution of sediment dispersal patterns and their tectonic controls in the Magallanes-Austral Basin. Detrital zircon sample groupings based on both a priori age binning and multidimensional scaling are required to maximize the potential of the Magallanes-Austral Basin data set. Multidimensional scaling results are sensitive to differences in major unimodal arc-related U-Pb detrital zircon ages and less sensitive to differences in multimodal, thrust belt–related age peaks. These sensitivities complicate basin-scale interpretations when data from poorly understood, less densely sampled sectors are compared to data from better-understood, more densely sampled sectors. Source region age binning alleviates these biases and compares well with multidimensional scaling results when samples from the less well-understood southern basin sector are excluded. Sample groupings generated by both multidimensional scaling and interpretive methods are also compatible with compositional provenance data. Together, this integration of provenance data and methods facilitates a detailed interpretation of sediment dispersal patterns and their tectonic controls for the Late Cretaceous to Eocene fill of the Magallanes-Austral retroarc foreland basin. We interpret that provenance signatures and dispersal patterns during the retroarc foreland phase were fundamentally controlled by conditions set by a predecessor extensional basin phase, including (1) variable magnitude of extension with latitude, (2) the composition of lithologies emplaced on the antecedent western flank, and (3) long-lasting structural discontinuities associated with early rifting that may have partitioned dispersal systems or controlled the location of long-lived drainage networks.

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