Although facies models of braided, meandering and anastomosing rivers have provided the cornerstones of fluvial sedimentology for several decades, the depositional processes and external controls on sheetflow fluvial systems remain poorly understood. Sheetflow fluvial systems represent a volumetrically significant part of the non-marine sedimentary record and documented here are the lithofacies, depositional processes and possible roles of rapid subsidence and arid climate in generating a sheetflow-dominated fluvial system in the Cenozoic hinterland of the central Andes. A 6500 m thick succession comprising the Late Eocene–Oligocene Potoco Formation is exposed continuously for >100 km along the eastern limb of the Corque syncline in the high Altiplano plateau of Bolivia. Fluvial sandstone and mudstone units were deposited over an extensive region (>10 000 km2) with remarkably few incised channels or stacked-channel complexes. The Potoco succession provides an exceptional example of rapid production of accommodation sustained over a prolonged period of time in a non-marine setting (>0·45 mm year−1 for 14 Myr). The lower ≈4000 m of the succession coarsens upward and consists of fine-grained to medium-grained sandstone, mudstone and gypsum deposits with palaeocurrent indicators demonstrating eastward transport. The upper 2500 m also coarsens upward, but contains mostly fine-grained to medium-grained sandstone that exhibits westward palaeoflow.
Three facies associations were identified from the Potoco Formation and are interpreted to represent different depositional environments in a sheetflow-dominated system. (i) Playa lake deposits confined to the lower 750 m are composed of interbedded gypsum, gypsiferous mudstone and sandstone. (ii) Floodplain deposits occur throughout the succession and include laterally extensive (>200 m) laminated to massive mudstone and horizontally stratified and ripple cross-stratified sandstone. Pedogenic alteration and root casts are common. (iii) Poorly confined channel and unconfined sheet sandstone deposits include laterally continuous beds (50 to >200 m) that are defined primarily by horizontally stratified and ripple cross-stratified sandstone encased in mudstone-rich floodplain deposits.
The ubiquitous thin-sheet geometry and spatial distribution of individual facies within channel sandstone and floodplain deposits suggest that confined to unconfined, episodic (flash) flood events were the primary mode of deposition. The laterally extensive deposition and possible distributary nature of this sheetflow-dominated system are attributed to fluvial fan conditions in an arid to semi-arid, possibly seasonal, environment. High rates of sediment accumulation and tectonic subsidence during early Andean orogenesis may have favoured the development and long-term maintenance of a sheetflow system rather than a braided, meandering or anastomosing fluvial style. It is suggested here that rapidly produced accommodation space and a relatively arid, seasonal climate are critical conditions promoting the generation of sheetflow-dominated fluvial systems.