Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Geologic Time The Story of a Changing Earth
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The Holocene
Climate Change and Variability
Impact of Human Development
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Holocene 11,500 years to present
Defining Characteristics:
  • • impact of Homo sapiens and technology
Secondary Characteristics:
  • • climate warming following the last ice age
  • • continents drying out, polar areas contract
  • • plant communities shifting with the climate

In 1853, German geologist R. Hoernes coined the term Neogene to describe the geologic period of time that ranges from the Miocene epoch (23 million years ago) to the present. The Neogene can be subdivided into an earlier, lower half that includes the Miocene and Pliocene Epochs, and a younger, upper half that includes the Pleistocene and Holocene. These last two subdivisions are often grouped into a separate period, called the Quaternary; however, this term is no longer used according to the International Commission on Stratigraphy.

The term Holocene was first proposed at the third International Geological Congress in 1885. It comes from the Greek words holos (meaning “whole”) and kainos (meaning “recent”), referring to fact that this epoch is the most recent division of Earth history. However, many scientists also used the term Recent or Postglacial for this epoch until 1967, when the U.S. Geological Survey formally adopted the term Holocene and discontinued the use of Recent.

The Holocene is a chronostratigraphic division that follows the Pleistocene Epoch. By consensus, it covers the last 11,500 years of Earth history. It is an important time to scientists because during this epoch most of our modern landscapes and soils evolved. In addition, significant changes in global climate occurred as the Earth moved into a postglacial — or interglacial — regime. In areas that were glaciated, this transition is marked by a clear stratigraphic boundary due primarily to the scouring effects and debris that retreating glaciers left on the landscape.


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