doi: 10.1130/0091-7613(1987)15<11:DCRTCC>2.0.CO;2
1987;15;11-14 Geology
D. D. Van Reenen, J. M. Barton, Jr., C. Roering, C. A. Smith and J. F. Van Schalkwyk
Deep crystal response to continental collision: The Limpopo belt of southern
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Deep crustal response to continental collision:
The Limpopo belt of southern Africa
D. D. Van Reenen, J. M. Barton, Jr, C. Roering, C. A. Smith, J. F. Van Schalkwyk
Department of Geology, Rand Afrikaans University, P.O. Box 524, Johannesburg 2000, South Africa
The Limpopo belt is an example of an Archean, 2700 Ma, continental collisional zone in
which the thickened crust (±70 km) has virtually attained equilibrium with the adjacent non-
thickened plates by a process of upward movement and lateral spreading of the underthrust,
high-grade metamorphosed plates.
The Limpopo belt (LB) of southern Africa is
a zone of Archean high-grade metamorphic and
igneous rocks situated between the Kaapvaal
and Zimbabwe cratons (Fig. 1) where a major
tectonic-metamorphic event occurred at about
2700 Ma. It consists of a central zone (CZ) of
largely epicontinental rocks separated by major
shear zones from marginal zones of granite-
greenstone lithologies (e.g., Barton and Key,
1981; Tankard et al., 1982; Barton, 1983; Kidd,
1985). The marginal zones pass outward into
low-grade granite-greenstone terranes of the
Kaapvaal and Zimbabwe cratons. The CZ lith-
ologies had a unique pre-2700 Ma history,
indicated particularly by geochronology and
high source
Pb values (Barton, 1983;
Barton et al., 1983b; Barton, unpub. data).
These rocks were subjected to high-grade condi-
tions at about 3150 Ma (Barton, 1983) and
again, along with the marginal zones, at about
2700 Ma.
We contend that earlier models of the tec-
tonic evolution of the LB do not accurately ex-
plain geologic features displayed at the surface
today. These features reflect the response of the
crust to thickening rather than to the mechanism
of that crustal thickening, and the LB, therefore,
reveals how thickened crust responds to form
crust in equilibrium with the surrounding plates.
Mqjor Tectonic-Metamorphic Event
at about 2700 Ma
The metamorphic and deformational transi-
tion from a typical low-grade granite-greenstone
terrane to the high-grade gneiss terrane in the
southern marginal zone (SMZ) (Figs. 1 and 2)
represents a cross section through Archean crust
(Du Toit et al., 1983; Van Reenen, 1983,1986;
Barton, 1983). Steeply northward-dipping, typi-
cal granite-greenstone lithologies are tectonically
juxtaposed with and overlain by progressively
(At 2600 Ma)
( # 0
i I ' l l
50 100km
Form lines
(Present day di stri buti on)
Form lines
Shear zones
• Cover
Figure 1. Distribution of shear zones and orthopyroxene isograd in northern part of Kaapvaal
craton before and after post-Bushveld lateral shearing. Distribution formed in response to crustal
thickening at about 2700 Ma. Limpopo belt Is encompassed by orthopyroxene isograd. CZ =
central zone, SMZ = southern marginal zone, NMZ = northern marginal zone.
GEOLOGY, v. 15, p. 11-14, January 1987
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higher grade lithologies from south to noith. The
lower grade terrane to the south comprises
mafic, ultramafic, felsic, and volcanic-sedimen-
tary assemblages of the Pietersburg, Sutherland,
and Rhenosterkoppies greenstone belts (Fig. 2).
The greenstone assemblage in the Pietersburg
belt is at least 34S0 Ma; it is at greenschist-gTade
in the central and southwestern parts and is
overlain along shear zones by amphibolite-grade
rocks in the northeast. The Rhenosterkoppies
and Sutherland greenstone belts display a similar
distribution of metamorphic grades relative to
shear zones. The ages of these two belts are un-
certain, but all the greenstone belts are sur-
rounded by the approximately 3500 Ma tona-
litic and trondhjemitic Baviaanskloof Gneiss.
Greenstone assemblages and the Baviaanskloof
Gneiss may be traced uninterrupted across the
transition from amphibolite grade to granulite
grade. This transition marks a significant change
in deformational style—high-grade greenstone
rocks are highly attenuated, in sharp contrast to
the more continuous outcrop pattern of the
lower grade lithologies to the south (Fig. 2).
Metamorphosed greenstone assemblages in the
granulite terrane everywhere yield blanket 2650
Ma Rb-Sr whole-rock ages which reflect a
major resetting of the Rb-Sr system during a
widespread metamorphic event (Barton et al.,
1983a). Both the low- and high-grade assem-
blages are intruded by 2650 Ma grarodioritic
plutons (e.g., the Matok pluton), by less well
defined 2650 Ma granite bodies in shear zones,
and by the posttectonic, approximately 2450
Ma Palmietfontein Granite (Barton et al.,
The occurrence of virtually undeformed tho-
leiitic lavas and conglomerate at very low met-
amorphic grade juxtaposed with penetratively
deformed sequences at amphibolite grade in the
Sutherland belt indicates that regional prograde
metamorphism did not occur in the northern
Kaapvaal craton. This fact implies rapid tectonic
The pressure-temperature-time evolution of
the SMZ, based on analyses of metapelitic
gneisses (Van Reenen, 1983,1986), is illustrated
in Figure 3. Maximum metamorphic conditions
(P >9. 5 kbar; T >800 °C) were followed by
rapid, nearly isothermal decompression of about
2.5 kbar (Fig. 2) between about 2700 and 2650
Ma, as recorded by decompression textures of
cordierite and hypersthene after garnet. The
Matok pluton was emplaced during decompres-
sion, as was the production of vast volumes of
granitic melts in virtually all rock components
(Du Toit et al., 1983). During this event,
granulite-grade rocks were uplifted and the
granulite terrane of the SMZ was established.
The southern margin of this dehydrated terrane
was then subjected to a regional encroachment
of COj-rich hydrating fluids. This rehydration
produced the retrograde orthoamphibole iso-
grad (Fig. 2), which can be followed over a
distance of more than 150 km (Van Reenen,
1983, 1986; Du Toit et al., 1983). The crustal
behavior of the entire northern part of the
Kaapvaal craton was consistent with the obser-
vation that the high-grade rocks of the SMZ
were depressed by about 27 km and then up-
lifted. This movement implies that the low-grade
terranes probably underwent similar but rela-
tively smaller P-T-time trajectories.
Despite its unique prehistory, after 2700 Ma
the CZ of the LB experienced a FT-t i me evolu-
tion similar to that of the SMZ (Horrocks, 1981;
Harris and Holland, 1984; Windley et al., 1984;
Pienaar, 1985; Watkeys, 1985). In the CZ,
however, the amounts of isothermal decompres-
sion increase systematically from about 2.3 kbar
in the west near the orthopyroxene isograd to
2 4 5 0 Ma Granite
Schiel and Phalaborwa
Alkaline Compl exes 2 0 5 0 Ma
Retrograde Or t hopyr oxene Isograd
Shear Zones
Thrust ;!one
Bavi aanskl oof Gnei ss
Figure 2. Metamorphic
geology and distribution
of shear zones in northern
part of Kaapvaal craton.
Southern marginal zone of
Limpopo belt lies to north
of orthopyroxene Isograd.
P = Pietersburg belt, R =
Rhenosterkoppies belt, S
= Sutherland belt, M =
Murchison belt.
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more than 5 kbar to the east near Messina (Van
Reenen, unpub. data). In the west, rocks of the
CZ were transported to the west (McCourt and
Vearncombe, 1986), rocks of the northern mar-
ginal zone (NMZ) were transported to the north
(James, 1975; Tankard et al., 1982), and rocks
of the SMZ were transported to the south, in
each case away from the areas affected by iso-
thermal decompression (Fig. 1). The timing of
these events in the NMZ seems to be coeval with
that of the CZ and SMZ events (James, 1975;
Tankard et al., 1982). The high-grade rocks of
the LB therefore appear to have responded in a
coherent fashion of the Limpopo orogeny. The
CZ was subsequently transported approximately
an additional 100 km to the west along major
wrench faults in post-Bushveld (2050 Ma) time
(McCourt and Vearncombe, 1986) (Fig. 1).
Nature, Timing, and Distribution
of Shear Zones
Our mapping in the SMZ has delineated a
series of steep, northward-dipping, 1-2-km-wide
arcuate ductile shear zones that parallel the
retrograde isograd (Figs. 1 and 2). At the mar-
gins of the high-grade area the shear zones
flatten into thrust faults. These zones represent
major dislocations, and stretching lineations in-
dicate transport primarily from north to south.
The same sense of displacement is also indicated
by the presence of charnockites exclusively
along the northern, higher grade sides of these
zones (Fig. 2). Gravity and resistivity data show
that regionally major crustal units dip to the
north and high-grade rocks rest on low-grade
rocks along a major dislocation in the vicinity
of the retrograde isograd (De Beer et al., 1986).
Movement of higher grade rocks over lower
grade rocks resulted in the dehydration of the
latter and the migration of fluids into the overly-
ing high-grade rocks, and this established the
retrograde isograd. Shear zones are superim-
posed on both the fabrics and the metamorphic
assemblages related to the isothermal decom-
pression; this indicates that shearing outlasted
that event (Du Toit et al., 1983). These shear
zones and the associated isograd were estab-
lished during and soon after the emplacement of
the Matok pluton at about 2650 Ma.
Most previous tectonic models of the LB have
invoked south over north continental collision
(Coward, 1976; Key and Hutton, 1976; Fripp,
1983; Light, 1982) or east over west (McCourt
and Vearncombe, 1986). In the first-mentioned
models, rocks from the Kaapvaal craton are
thrust onto those of the Zimbabwe craton, and
the transition to the granite-greenstone terrane
in the south is interpreted as either a very deep
crustal ramp (Coward, 1976; Coward and Fair-
head, 1980) or a steeply southward-dipping
crust on edge (Barton, 1983; Chernicoff, 1984).
Such models ignore the gross structural and lith-
ological differences between the CZ and the
marginal zones and the metamorphic and struc-
tural relations between the high-grade SMZ and
Retrograde Isograd
[ >2450 Ma]

[ >2700 Ma]
[2650 Ma]
j Anth. = En+Qt z + HaO
© Ph,0
[ 2200 Ma]
P = O 2 P r
H , 0 total
150 300 450 600
Te mp e r a t u r e (°C)
750 900
Figure 3. Pressure-temperature-time path for rocks of southern marginal zone of Limpopo belt.
For data, see Van Reenen (1986).
the adjacent low-grade granite-greenstone ter-
rane. In the other model, the CZ is a separate
crustal fragment thrust onto the combined
Kaapvaal and Zimbabwe cratons at about 2700
Ma (McCourt and Vearncombe, 1986).
The presence of relict igneous and sedimen-
tary textures and structures in the Sutherland
belt indicates that the greenstone successions of
the SMZ and adjacent granite-greenstone ter-
rane remained relatively stable in a low heat-
flow regime from 3500 until about 2700 Ma.
The tectonic setting of the Archean crust then
changed abruptly. It was deformed and meta-
morphosed over large areas, as surface rocks
were transferred to lower crustal levels.
The widespread (about 6 * 10
) high-
grade metamorphic assemblages at the surface
today are significant. Relict kyanite inclusions in
garnet indicate that the present erosional level
was overlain by a lithostatic load of at least
27 km at the time of metamorphism. The pres-
ent crustal thickness is about 35 km, and we
infer, therefore, a crustal thickness of at least
65 km in the high-grade area at approximately
2700 Ma. It is proposed that this crustal thicken-
ing was a direct result of two continents collid-
ing in a manner similar to that of the Himalayas.
No unequivocal data exist which establish how
the continents collided. In contrast, however, to
continental collisions that produce asymmetrical
metamorphic and deformational patterns across
the suture, the symmetrical P-T-time evolution
and radial-transport directions of the LB are ex-
plained by regional uplift.
Isotherms and isograds in the area of crustal
thickening were initially disrupted, but they re-
covered with time; the important consequence
was that granulite-grade conditions were super-
imposed onto earlier thrust and fold fabrics
(Huffman, 1985) and mineral parageneses. Su-
perimposed high-grade metamorphism was dis-
tributed over very large areas in the LB (Fig. 1),
and the thickened crust responded by uplift, as
evident from the presence of shear zones and
thrusting and associated decompression textures.
The granulitic terrane exposed today was driven
upward from deeper crustal levels and spread
out radially over the nonthickened crust adja-
cent to the suture.
A factor that contributed to the rapid iso-
thermal uplift was the presence of large volumes
of anatectic melt, which created a gravitational
instability resulting in diapirism in the classic
manner of Ramberg gravity tectonics (Ramberg,
1981). The fault planes were probably lubri-
cated by granite melts, allowing "melt-enhanced
surge tectonics" (Hollister and Crawford, 1986).
It is speculated that tectonic erosion caused by
gravity slides on listric-normal faults assisted the
12 GEOLOGY, January 1987
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v N \ >
Figure 4. Model lor re-
sponse of rocks ol Lim-
popo belt lo crustal thick-
ening beginning at about
2700 Ma. Stages shown
are envisioned to have
taken place in less than
50 m.y.
normal processes of erosion in removing the
overlying crustal material. Gravitational collapse
and spreading at the higher crustal levels con-
tributed to lateral spreading of the upward-rising
high-grade terrane.
The model proposed here for the tectonic evo-
lution of the LB includes the following stages
(Fig. 4): (1) initial continental collision with
crustal thickening as is currently occurring in the
Himalayas; (2) readjustment of isotherms, which
established at depth high-grade isograds on
mixed lithologies; (3) rapid rebound of crust ac-
companied by diapirism from deep crustal levels
and lateral spreading; and (4) attainment of
equilibrium when crustal thickness of the up-
lifted area is more or less equal to that of the
surrounding cratons.
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Manuscript received April 18,1986
Revised manuscript received August 28,1986
Manuscript accepted September 30,1986
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