• Fossil charcoal;
  • fynbos biome;
  • glacial environments mediterranean-climate region;
  • plant diversity


Aim The aim of this paper is to analyse fossil charcoal deposits, largely identified to the species level and spanning a sequence from the late Holocene to < 40,000 BP, in order to reconstruct Late Quaternary vegetation and climatic patterns in the western (winter-rainfall) fynbos biome of South Africa.

Location The charcoals were excavated from the Elands Bay Cave (32°19S, 18°20E) on the semiarid (200–250 mmyr−1), winter-rainfall coastline of the western fynbos biome.

Methods Patterns in the charcoal data set over time were sought by manual sorting of the charcoal×sample matrix, as well as by subjecting the data to multivariate analysis. Palaeoclimatic reconstruction was attempted by comparing the climatic controls on contemporary vegetation communities that resembled the fossil assemblages. Charcoal diversity was modelled using sample age and number of charcoal fragments as explanatory variables.

Results The fossil assemblages ranged from xeric communities (similar to those presently occurring at the site) during the Holocene, to more mesic thicket and fynbos vegetation in the terminal Pleistocene, to Afromontane forest and riverine woodland communities after about 18,000 BP. Diversity of the charcoal samples increased monotonically with increasing sample age.

Main conclusions The results suggest that, unlike the eastern fynbos biome, which is under fundamentally different climatic controls, soil moisture conditions in the western part of the biome were higher in the Last Glacial than during the Holocene. This scenario may help to explain the higher regional richness and associated diversification in the western than eastern part of the biome.