In modern rivers, vegetation affects hydrological, geomorphological and sedimentological functioning, so extant fluvial systems can provide only partial analogues for those rivers that operated before the evolution of land plants. However, pre-vegetation rivers were the norm for the first 90% of Earth's history and so a better understanding of their sedimentary product can provide insights into both the fundamental underlying mechanisms of river behaviour and the ways in which fluvial processes operated on ancient Earth. In addition to a short review of the history of research into pre-vegetation alluvium, this paper presents a fieldwork-based case study of the later Proterozoic Torridon Group, which contains some of the most extensive and easily accessible exposures of pre-vegetation alluvium worldwide. Three alluvial architectural deposits have been recognized: (1) channel-bedform deposits (c. 80%); (2) barform deposits (c. 20%); and (3) out-of-channel deposits (≪1%). Channel-bedform deposits have erosional bases and most frequently stack vertically to form thick multistorey channel-bedform sequences. The preferential preservation of these deposits, which record the deepest parts of river channels, suggests that channel migration had a dominant control on preservation in the Torridon Group. Less frequently, channel-bedform deposits pass upwards into a genetically related barform deposit. Barform preservation in these instances is interpreted to be due to channel avulsion, which protected the barforms from reworking. Channel-bar thickness, measured from the basal erosional surface of a channel-bedform deposit to the top of its associated barform deposit, indicates minimum water depths of 1.7 to 8.0 m. Downstream-accreting barform deposits are most frequent, but lateral and upstream modes of accretion are also well represented. Dominant southeastward-palaeoflow directions imply that the Torridonian rivers were sourced from the Grenvillian Mountain Belt. The preserved architectural deposits and narrow dispersal of palaeocurrent data are explained by interpreting the Torridon Group as the alluvium of dominantly low-sinuosity rivers, with signatures recording autogenic fluvial adjustments. In the few rare instances where out-of-channel deposits are preserved, they contain fossil evidence for microbial mats, which prove that not all Proterozoic river systems were wholly abiotic. The overall characteristics of the Torridon alluvium, in terms of its ubiquitous highly tabular beds of sand-grade or coarser material, make it an archetypal example of pre-vegetation alluvium as known globally.
Thematic collection: This article is part of the SJG Collection on Early-Career Research available at: https://www.lyellcollection.org/cc/SJG-early-career-research