The Cenozoic, meaning “new life,” is known as the age of mammals because it is in this era that mammals came to be a dominant and large life form, including human ancestors. Birds, as well, flourished in the open niches left by the dinosaur’s demise. Most of the Cenozoic has been relatively warm, with the main exception being the ice age that started about 2.558 million years ago and (despite recent warming) continues today. Tectonic shifts in the west caused volcanism but eventually changed the long-standing subduction zone into a transform boundary.
Cenozoic Tectonics and Paleogeography
Animation of the last 38 million years of movement in western North America. Note, that after the ridge is subducted, convergent turns to transform (with divergent inland).
In the Cenozoic, the plates of the Earth moved into more familiar places, with the biggest change being the closing of the Tethys Sea with collisions such as the Alps, Zagros, and Himalaya, a collision that started about 57 million years ago and continues today. Maybe the most significant tectonic feature that occurred in the Cenozoic of North America was the conversion of the west coast of California from a convergent boundary subduction zone to a transform boundary. Subduction off the coast of the western United States, which had occurred throughout the Mesozoic, had continued in the Cenozoic. After the Sevier Orogeny in the late Mesozoic, a subsequent orogeny called the Laramide Orogeny occurred in the early Cenozoic. The Laramide was thick-skinned, different than the Sevier Orogeny. It involved deeper crustal rocks and produced bulges that would become mountain ranges like the Rockies, Black Hills, Wind River Range, Uinta Mountains, and the San Rafael Swell. Instead of descending directly into the mantle, the subducting plate shallowed out and moved eastward beneath the continental plate affecting the overlying continent hundreds of miles east of the continental margin and building high mountains. This occurred because the subducting plate was so young and near the spreading center and the density of the plate was therefore low and subduction was hindered .
As the mid-ocean ridge itself started to subduct, the relative motion had changed. Subduction caused a relative convergence between the subducting Farallon plate and the North American plate. On the other side of the mid-ocean ridge from the Farallon plate was the Pacific plate, which was moving away from the North American plate. Thus, as the subduction zone consumed the mid-ocean ridge, the relative movement became transform instead of convergent, which went on to become the San Andreas Fault System. As the San Andreas grew, it caused east-west directed extensional forces to spread over the western United States, creating the Basin and Range province. The transform fault switched position over the last 18 million years, twisting the mountains around Los Angeles, and new faults in the southeastern California deserts may become a future San Andreas-style fault . During this switch from subduction to transform, the nearly horizontal Farallon slab began to sink into the mantle. This caused magmatism as the subducting slab sank, allowing asthenosphere material to rise around it. This event is called the Oligocene ignimbrite flare-up, which was one of the most significant periods of volcanism ever, including the largest single confirmed eruption, the 5000 cubic kilometer Fish Canyon Tuff .
There are five groups of early mammals in the fossil record, based primarily on fossil teeth, the hardest bone in vertebrate skeletons. For the purpose of this text, the most important group is the Eupantotheres, which diverges into the two main groups of mammals, the marsupials (Sinodelphys) and placentals or eutherians (Eomaia) in the Cretaceous and then diversified in the Cenozoic. The marsupials dominated on the isolated island continents of South America and Australia, and many went extinct in South America with the introduction of placental mammals. Some well-known mammal groups have been highly studied with interesting evolutionary stories in the Cenozoic. For example, horses started small with four toes, ended up larger and having just one toe . Cetaceans (marine mammals like whales and dolphins) started on land from small bear-like (mesonychids) creatures in the early Cenozoic and gradually took to water . However, no study of evolution has been more studied than human evolution. Hominids, the name for human-like primates, started in eastern Africa several million years ago.
The first critical event in this story is an environmental change from jungle to more of a savanna, probably caused by changes in Indian Ocean circulation. While bipedalism is known to have evolved before this shift, it is generally believed that our bipedal ancestors (like Australopithecus) had an advantage by covering ground more easily in a more open environment compared to their non-bipedal evolutionary cousins. There is also a growing body of evidence, including the famous “Lucy” fossil of an Australopithecine, that our early ancestors lived in trees. Arboreal animals usually demand a high intelligence to navigate through a three-dimensional world. It is from this lineage that humans evolved, using endurance running as a means to acquire more resources and possibly even hunt. This can explain many uniquely human features, from our long legs, strong achilles, lack of lower gut protection, and our wide range of running efficiencies.
Now that the hands are freed up, the next big step is a large brain. There have been arguments from a switch to more meat-eating, cooking with fire , tool usage, and even the construct of society itself to explain this increase in brain size. Regardless of how, it was this increased cognitive power that allowed humans to reign as their ancestors moved out of Africa and explored the world, ultimately entering the Americas through land bridges like the Bering Land Bridge. The details of this worldwide migration and the different branches of the hominid evolutionary tree are very complex, and best reserved for its own course.
Anthropocene and Extinction
Humans have had an influence on the Earth, its ecosystems and climate. Yet, human activity can not explain all of the changes that have occurred in the recent past. The start of the Quaternary period, the last and current period of the Cenozoic, is marked by the start of our current ice age 2.58 million years ago. During this time period, ice sheets advanced and retreated, most likely due to Milankovitch cycles (see Chapter 15). Also at this time, various cold-adapted megafauna emerged (like giant sloths, saber-tooth cats, and woolly mammoths), and most of them went extinct as the Earth warmed from the most recent glacial maximum. A long-standing debate is over the cause of these and other extinctions. Is climate warming to blame, or were they caused by humans ? Certainly, we know of recent human extinctions of animals like the dodo or passenger pigeon. Can we connect modern extinctions to extinctions in the recent past? If so, there are several ideas as to how this happened. Possibly the most widely accepted and oldest is the hunting/overkill hypothesis . The idea behind this hypothesis is that humans hunted large herbivores for food, then carnivores could not find food, and human arrival times in locations have been shown to be tied to increased extinction rates in many cases.
Modern human impact on the environment and the Earth as a whole is unquestioned. In fact, many scientists are starting to suggest that the rise of human civilization ended and/or replaced the Holocene epoch and defines a new geologic time interval: the Anthropocene . Evidence for this change includes extinctions, increased tritium (hydrogen with two neutrons) due to nuclear testing, rising pollutants like carbon dioxide, more than 200 never-before-seen mineral species that have occurred only in this epoch, materials such as plastic and metals which will be long-lasting “fossils” in the geologic record, and large amounts of earthen material moved. The biggest scientific debate with this topic is the starting point. Some say that humans’ invention of agriculture would be recognized in geologic strata and that should be the starting point, around 12,000 years ago. Others link the start of the industrial revolution and the subsequent addition of vast amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere . Either way, the idea is that alien geologists visiting Earth in the distant future would easily recognize the impact of humans on the Earth as the beginning of a new geologic period.
156. Schellart WP, Stegman DR, Farrington RJ, et al (2010) Cenozoic tectonics of western North America controlled by evolving width of Farallon slab. Science 329:316–319. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1190366