In 1964, W.Q. Kennedy suggested that the crust of Saharan Africa is different from the rest of Africa. To date, the geologic evolution of this region remains obscure because the age and composition of crystalline basement are unknown across large sectors of the Sahara. Most of Africa comprises Archaean cratons surrounded by Palaeo- to Mesoproterozoic orogenic belts, which together constitute Africa’s three major shields (the Southern, Central and West African Shields), finally assembled along belts of Pan-African rocks. By contrast, central Saharan Africa (5.3x106 km2), an area just over half the size of Europe, is considered either as a Neoproterozoic region constructed of relatively juvenile crust (0.5 to 1.0 Ga), or as an older (North African) shield that was reactivated and re-stabilized during that time, a period commonly referred to as “Pan African”. Here, using U-Pb zircon age determinations and Nd isotopic data, we show that remote areas in Chad, part of the undated Darfur Plateau stretching across ¾ million km2 of the central Sahara, comprise an extensive Neoproterozoic crystalline basement of pre-tectonic gabbro-tonalite-granodiorite and predominantly post-tectonic alkali feldspar granites and syenites that intruded between ca. 550 to 1050 Ma. This basement is flanked along its western margin by a Neoproterozoic continental calc-alkaline magmatic arc coupled to a cryptic suture zone that can be traced for ~2400 km from Tibesti through western Darfur into Cameroon. We refer to this as the Central Saharan Belt. This, in a Gondwana framework, is part of a greater arc structure, which we here term the Great Central Gondwana Arc (GCGA). Inherited zircons and Nd isotopic ratios indicate the Neoproterozoic magmas in the central Sahara were predominantly derived from Mesoproterozoic continental lithosphere. Regional deformation between 613 to 623 Ma marks the onset of late alkaline granite magmatism that was widespread across a much larger area of North Africa until about 550 Ma. During this magmatism, the region was exhumed and eroded, leaving a regional peneplain on which early Palaeozoic (Lower-Middle Cambrian) siliciclastic sediments were subsequently deposited, as part of a thick and widespread cover that stretched across much of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Detrital zircons in these cover sequences provide evidence that a substantial volume of detritus was derived from the central Sahara region, because these sequences include ‘Kibaran-age’ zircons (ca. 1000 Ma) for which a source terrain has hitherto been lacking. We propose that, in preference to calling the central Sahara a “ghost” or “meta” craton, it should be called the Central Sahara Shield.

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