The tectonic evolution of the Tian Shan, as for most ranges in continental Asia is dominated by north-south compression since the Cenozoic India-Asia collision. However, precollision governing tectonic processes remain enigmatic. An excellent record is provided by thick Palaeozoic – Cenozoic lacustrine to fluvial depositional sequences that are well preserved in the southern margin of the Junggar Basin and exposed along a foreland basin associated to the Late Cenozoic rejuvenation of the Tian Shan ranges. U/Pb (LA-ICP-MS) dating of detrital zircons from 14 sandstone samples from a continuous series ranging in age from latest Palaeozoic to Quaternary is used to investigate changes in sediment provenance through time and to correlate them with major tectonic phases in the range. Samples were systematically collected along two nearby sections in the foreland basin. The results show that the detrital zircons are mostly magmatic in origin, with some minor input from metamorphic zircons. The U-Pb detrital zircon ages range widely from 127 to 2856 Ma and can be divided into four main groups: 127–197 (sub-peak at 159 Ma), 250–379 (sub-peak at 318 Ma), 381–538 (sub-peak at 406 Ma) and 543–2856 Ma (sub-peak at 912 Ma). These groups indicate that the zircons were largely derived from the Tian Shan area to the south since a Late Carboniferous basin initiation. The provenance and basin-range pattern evolution of the southern margin of Junggar Basin can be generally divided into four stages: (1) Late Carboniferous – Early Triassic basin evolution in a half-graben or post-orogenic extensional context; (2) From Middle Triassic to Upper Jurassic times, the southern Junggar became a passively subsiding basin until (3) being inverted during Lower Cretaceous – Palaeogene; (4) During the Neogene, a piedmont developed along the northern margin of the North Tian Shan block and Junggar Basin became a true foreland basin.
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