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Southeast Asian sediments not from Asia: Provenance and geochronology of
north Borneo sandstones
Marco W.A. van Hattum, Robert Hall, April L. Pickard and Gary J. Nichols
Geology 2006;34;589-592
doi: 10.1130/G21939.1

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Southeast Asian sediments not from Asia: Provenance and

geochronology of north Borneo sandstones
Marco W.A. van Hattum SE Asia Research Group, Department of Geology, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham,

Surrey TW20 0EX, UK

Robert Hall
April L. Pickard School of Earth & Geographical Sciences, University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, WA
6109, Australia

Gary J. Nichols SE Asia Research Group, Department of Geology, Royal Holloway University of London, Egham, Surrey TW20
Eocenelower Miocene sandstones of the Crocker turbidite fan of north Borneo were
derived from nearby Borneo and southeastern Asian sources, rather than distant Asian
sources eroded after India-Eurasia collision. They are compositionally mature due to tropical weathering, but are mostly first-cycle sandstones derived from granitic rocks and
subordinate metamorphic, sedimentary, and ophiolitic rocks. Detrital zircon ages range
from Archean to Eocene, and the majority are Mesozoic. The most important source areas
were Cretaceous granites of the Schwaner Mountains in southwest Borneo during the
Eocene, and PermianTriassic granites and Proterozoic basement of the Malay-Thai Tin
Belt during the Oligocene.
Keywords: Southeast Asia, Borneo, turbidites, provenance, zircon geochronology.
The Crocker Fan of north Borneo (Fig. 1)
is the largest volume of Paleogene sediment
in a single basin in Southeast Asia, and was
deposited during early stages of India-Asia
collision. This has suggested to some (Hall,
1996; Hamilton, 1979; Hutchison, 1996; Metivier et al., 1999) that sediments were derived
from sources in Asia elevated by the collision
and transported to the Sunda Shelf by major
rivers, whereas others (Hall, 2002; Hall and
Morley, 2004) argue for local sources.
The Crocker Fan formed on the south side
of the ProtoSouth China Sea at an active subduction margin (Hazebroek and Tan, 1993;
Hutchison, 1996; Tongkul, 1989). It was deposited between the Eocene and early Miocene (Fig. 2), but different formations in the
fan are not precisely dated because of the paucity of microfossils. It overlies an older sequence of deep-marine sediments, the Upper
CretaceousEocene Rajang Group, represented by the Sapulut Formation in Sabah, Malaysia. Hutchison (1996) reported a major unconformity at the base, due to the Eocene
Sarawak orogeny. The fan includes the middle
Eocene Trusmadi Formation, the upper
EoceneOligocene Crocker Formation, and
the Oligocenelower Miocene Temburong
Formation (Fig. 2). Deep-marine sedimentation stopped in the early Miocene when the
ProtoSouth China Sea was eliminated by
subduction beneath Borneo (Hamilton, 1979;
Hutchison, 2004; Taylor and Hayes, 1983).
The resulting Sabah orogeny (Hutchison,
1996) deformed and exposed sediments of the
Crocker Fan; today a part is offshore beneath
thick Neogene sediments (Fig. 1).

Unweathered sandstones were collected in
Sabah for provenance analysis. Detrital modes
of 97 sandstones were determined, and heavy
mineral contents and zircon varieties were determined for 53 of these samples. Detrital zircons from five samples for which the stratigraphic age was known, selected from
different levels in the fan, were dated using
sensitive high-resolution ion microprobe.
(Results are provided in the GSA Data
Quartz in sandstones derived from plutonic,
volcanic, metamorphic, or sedimentary rocks
can be used as a provenance indicator (Pettijohn et al., 1987). The Crocker Fan sandstones
consist mostly of monocrystalline plutonic
quartz. Metamorphic quartz is less common.
Rare volcanic quartz is restricted to the oldest
sandstones. QFL (quartz, feldspar, lithics; Fig.
3) and QmFLt (monocrystalline quartz, feldspar, total lithics) plots (Dickinson et al.,
1983) based on the Gazzi-Dickinson pointcounting method show the quartzose nature of
the sandstones and suggest a recycled orogenic source. Feldspar rarely forms more than
10% of the sandstones, and is predominantly
potassium feldspar, indicating an acidic plu1GSA Data Repository item 2006111, sandstone
modal, heavy mineral, and chemical compositions;
varietal distributions; and zircon U-Pb ages determined by SHRIMP analysis, is available online at, or on request
from or Documents Secretary, GSA, P.O. Box 9140, Boulder, CO 80301,

tonic source. Radiolarian chert fragments are

always present, forming as much as 5% of the
grains. Other lithic grains include serpentinite,
rare acid volcanic rocks, granite, and schist.
Zircon and tourmaline typically make up
.70% of the heavy mineral assemblages in
the Crocker Fan sandstones (Fig. 4). Their
abundance indicates erosion from acid plutonic rocks and their unabraded shapes suggest a
nearby source area. Other common heavy
minerals are apatite, chrome spinel, garnet,
and rutile. Apatite would normally be abundant in material derived from acid plutonic
rocks, but it is often absent and those grains
present are often pitted or partially dissolved.
This suggests that the abundance of apatite reflects weathering rather than provenance. Apatite is stable during burial but susceptible to
acidic weathering, which is common in humid
tropical settings (Morton, 1986). Common
chrome spinel, showing very little abrasion,
indicates a local ophiolitic source. Garnet
abundance is variable, from 0% to 50%, and
its association with rutile (average 6%) suggests a metamorphic source. Less common
heavy minerals include pyroxene, amphibole,
monazite, staurolite, and cassiterite. Cassiterite is brittle and easily destroyed during transport, and indicates a nearby acid plutonic
Index values of chrome spinelzircon (CZi)
and garnet-zircon (GZi) are useful for provenance interpretation, because they are independent of the effects of hydraulic sorting and
chemical destruction (Morton and Hallsworth,
1994, 1999). In Sabah the CZi value indicates
the amount of ophiolitic relative to acid igneous material, and the GZi value indicates
the relative amounts of metamorphic and acid
igneous material. CZi values of the Crocker
and Trusmadi Formations are typically between 2 and 7, showing a small but consistent
input of ophiolitic material. The GZi values
range from 0 to 60, indicating variable input
of metamorphic material. Other indices were
less useful for interpretation; for example, the
apatite-tourmaline index value reflects the loss
of apatite during tropical weathering.

q 2006 Geological Society of America. For permission to copy, contact Copyright Permissions, GSA, or
Geology; July 2006; v. 34; no. 7; p. 589592; doi: 10.1130/G21939.1; 5 figures; Data Repository item 2006111.


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Figure 1. Simplified geological map of Borneo and Southeast Asia. Light-shaded area is
continental shelf of Eurasia drawn at 200 m isobath.

Textures of the Crocker Fan sandstones are
in marked contrast to their apparent compositional maturity. Texturally, they are immature typical first-cycle sandstones; grains are
angular to subangular, and there are few clasts
that suggest recycling. They are poorly sorted,
have a muddy matrix, and a very low porosity.
The sandstones contain abundant euhedral and
subhedral zircon grains (Fig. 4), typical of
first-cycle sandstones. Chemically ultrastable
zircon is susceptible only to mechanical abrasion during transport and sedimentation. Unabraded zircons are mixed with less abundant
subrounded and rare rounded grains. Tourmaline also occurs predominantly as unabraded grains. The shapes and lack of abrasion of
zircons and tourmalines indicate that longdistance transport is very unlikely.
Detrital zircons were dated from an Eocene
sample just beneath, and from four Eocene
and Oligocene samples within the Crocker
Fan (Fig. 2). Between 55 and 72 zircons were
dated for each sample. Ages range from Eocene (49.9 6 1.9 Ma) to Archean (2531.6 6
11.2 Ma), the oldest radiometric age reported
from Borneo. The most prominent age peaks
(Fig. 5) are Cretaceous (ca. 77130 Ma),
PermianTriassic (ca. 213268 Ma), and Proterozoic (ca. 17501900 Ma). There are smaller Jurassic and OrdovicianSilurian age peaks.
Zircons from two Schwaner Mountains gran590

ites of southwest Borneo were also dated because they are potential source rocks, and
these are Cretaceous.
In the Eocene sandstones Cretaceous zircons dominate (Fig. 5) and are euhedral unabraded grains (Fig. 4), suggesting derivation
from a nearby source. MVH02-264 (Eocene
Sapulut Formation) contains many Upper Cretaceous zircons with subordinate Carboniferous, Devonian, and Silurian zircons. Permian
Triassic zircons are very rare. MVH02-142
(Eocene Trusmadi Formation) contains abundant Upper Cretaceous zircons with Triassic,
CarboniferousPermian, Ordovician, and Proterozoic zircons. MVH02-271 (upper Eocene
part of the Crocker Formation) is one of the
least mature samples in composition and texture. It contains abundant colorless unabraded
Lower Cretaceous zircons with relatively
common PermianTriassic zircons.
In the Oligocene Crocker Formation Cretaceous zircons are less abundant, Permian
Triassic zircons are common (Fig. 5), and
well-rounded colored Proterozoic zircons become relatively more abundant. MVH02-115
is dominated by PermianTriassic zircons.
Cretaceous zircons are very rare. Precambrian
zircons, especially Proterozoic, show a higher
degree of rounding than other zircons.
MVH02-116 (upper Oligocene) is one of the
few samples in which cassiterite was found. It
contains mainly Upper Permian zircons, some
Cretaceous, Carboniferous, and Ordovician
zircons, and a few Proterozoic zircons.

Figure 2. Onshore stratigraphy of west Sabah. Crocker Fan includes muddy low-grade
metamorphic Trusmadi Formation, voluminous nonmetamorphic Crocker Formation,
which contains most sand, and muddy Temburong Formation.


Both light and heavy mineral fractions indicate the importance of granitic source rocks.
The light minerals are dominated by poorly
sorted angular plutonic quartz, and the heavy

Figure 3. QFL plot (Dickinson et al., 1983) of

framework detrital modes showing average
compositions of Crocker Fan sandstones:
Qtotal quartzose, including polycrystalline grains; Ffeldspar grains; Lunstable
lithic grains of sedimentary, igneous, or
metamorphic origin.
GEOLOGY, July 2006

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Figure 4. Detrital zircons from Crocker Formation. Sandstones are dominated by euhedral and subhedral grains, with less abundant subrounded and rare rounded grains.

minerals are dominated by unabraded zircon

and tourmaline, suggesting limited transport
and a nearby source. Potassium feldspar and
rare cassiterite also indicate acid plutonic
source rocks. The consistent presence of chert
and unabraded chrome spinel indicates input
from the ophiolitic basement of north Borneo.
Garnet accompanied by rutile indicates variable input from metamorphic rocks. Volcanic
quartz and zircons having ages similar to
those of the depositional age of the sandstones
are rare.
Unabraded Cretaceous zircons dominate the
Eocene sandstone heavy minerals. They are
igneous zircons with a simple crystallization
history; most lack zoning, older cores, and
younger overgrowths. Ages of detrital zircons
can be compared to those of potential granite
source rocks in the Schwaner Mountains of
southwest Borneo, the Malaysian Tin Belt,
and southern Indochina.
Lower Cretaceous granites with hornblende
and biotite K-Ar ages of 130100 Ma (Williams et al., 1988) are abundant in the nearby
Schwaner Mountains. Upper Cretaceous granites are less common, but zircons from the Sukadana Granite dated in this study have ages
between 80 and 87 Ma. Detrital zircons of
similar age are abundant in the Eocene sandstones, and there are common but fewer Early
Cretaceous zircons (Fig. 5). The Schwaner
granites intrude the pre-Carboniferous Pinoh
metamorphic rocks, which would account for
the presence of garnet, staurolite, and
Cretaceous granites are known from the
currently submerged Sunda Shelf close to the
Schwaner Mountains (Pupilli, 1973), where
they are overlain by thin Quaternary sediments (Ben-Avraham and Emery, 1973).
GEOLOGY, July 2006

Figure 5. Detrital zircon age probability plots for Sabah sandstones in stratigraphic order.
Pie diagrams show inferred provenance, based on heavy mineral characteristics and principal component analysis of zircon ages. SchwanerBorneo Cretaceous granites, Tin
BeltMalay-Thai PermianTriassic granites, YByoung basement, OBold basement,
Ophiolitesophiolitic basement.

There are Cretaceous granites in the Malay

Peninsula, but they are much less abundant
than PermianTriassic granites. The Eocene
sandstones are dominated by Cretaceous zircons, and in the oldest sample Permian
Triassic zircons are very rare. This suggests
that the Malay Peninsula was not a source for
oldest Eocene sediments, but did contribute
later in the Eocene, because the abundance of
PermianTriassic zircons increases in younger
Eocene samples. Cretaceous granites in Indochina (Fig. 1) intrude Paleozoic granites, but
there are relatively few Paleozoic zircons in
the Crocker Fan and no correlation of Cretaceous and Paleozoic zircon abundances, as
would be expected if material came from
We suggest that during the Eocene, Cretaceous granites in the Schwaner Mountains and
nearby Sunda Shelf contributed the most sediment to the Crocker Fan. Apatite fission track
studies of Schwaner granites indicate rapid exhumation in the Late Cretaceous (Sumartadipura, 1976). A volcanic contribution is suggested by zircons with ages very close to
stratigraphic ages in the two oldest Eocene
samples. The youngest zircons indicate a max-

imum depositional age of late Paleocene (56

Ma) for the Sapulut Formation, and early Eocene (50 Ma) for the Trusmadi Formation,
both previously uncertainly dated as Eocene
from biostratigraphy (Collenette, 1965).
In the Oligocene sandstones Lower Cretaceous zircons are more abundant than Upper
Cretaceous zircons, similar to the present-day
proportions of granites in the Schwaner
Mountains. PermianTriassic zircons become
abundant, and their ages are similar to those
of granites in the Malay-Thai Tin Belt (Cobbing et al., 1992). Malay Peninsula granites
have a Paleoproterozoic basement (Liew and
Page, 1985). Principal component analysis
shows that proportions of PermianTriassic
and Paleoproterozoic zircons are strongly correlated (Fig. 5), and the old zircons are strongly colored and highly rounded. We interpret
these observations to indicate that during the
Oligocene, Tin Belt granites became increasingly important sources for the Crocker Fan.
Proterozoic zircons were derived from metasedimentary basement, or younger sediments
into which they had been recycled. Apatite fission track data show rapid Oligocene (3324
Ma) exhumation of Malay Peninsula Tin Belt
granites (Krahenbuhl, 1991). There is a strong

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negative correlation between the proportions
of Cretaceous and PermianTriassic zircons,
indicating that Schwaner and Tin Belt granites
supplied sediment independently and at different times. Volcanism associated with subduction of the protoSouth China Sea below
Borneo did not supply much sediment to the
Crocker Fan. Reconnaissance studies of other
Paleogene sandstones in Sabah suggest that
volcanic debris was trapped in forearc basins
closer to the arc.
There is no reason to suggest a distant
source for the Borneo sediments other than
their apparent compositional maturity, which
is in contrast to their textural immaturity. We
suggest that this apparent conflict is the result
of tropical weathering. Light mineral modes
can be strongly and rapidly altered by humid
tropical weathering during erosion, transport,
and alluvial storage of sand by preferential destruction of feldspar and unstable lithic grains.
The modal composition can be so altered that
the plate tectonic setting may be misinterpreted (Johnsson et al., 1988; Suttner et al., 1981).
Caution is needed when using standard modal
plots (Dickinson et al., 1983) to interpret tectonic setting of tropical sandstones. Borneo
was in a low-latitude region with a humid
tropical climate throughout the Cenozoic
(Hall, 2002; Morley, 1998), with intense
chemical weathering during erosion and transport. The textures of the Sabah Paleogene
sandstones indicate that they are first-cycle
sandstones, derived from relatively close
sources. Transport from distant Indochina
sources would have required long-distance
fluvial transport, causing greater textural maturity and much more zircon rounding than
observed. Zircon ages and heavy mineral data
are easily explained by sources in the Schwaner Mountains and the Tin Belt.
An Asian origin for southeastern Asian sediments is often implied or assumed (e.g., Metivier et al., 1999), including perhaps transport
to the Crocker Fan by a protoMekong River
(Hutchison, 1989, 1996; Hall, 1996). This
study does not support this idea. There is increasing evidence that much of the sediment
from Asia and Indochina was not transported
to the Sunda Shelf until the late Miocene. Before then, the Mekong and Salween were less
important rivers than today, and much sediment from eastern Tibet was carried east to
the Gulf of Tonkin by the paleoRed River.
Rapid incision and erosion in eastern Tibet
started ca. 139 Ma (Clark et al., 2005). River
capture and drainage reversal in the late Miocene resulted in the present-day drainage configuration (Clark et al., 2004). During the early Cenozoic most sediment coming from Asia
and Indochina to Southeast Asia was trapped
in basins in Thailand (Nichols and Uttamo,
2005) and the Sunda Shelf (Hall and Morley,

Although the early stages of the India-Asia

collision would have elevated rocks in the
Himalayas and Indochina, these areas did not
supply significant sediment to the Crocker
Fan. Borneo and nearby Southeast Asia supplied most clastic material. Hall and Nichols
(2002) suggested that circum-Borneo sediments were mostly derived from Borneo
throughout the Neogene; this study suggests
that Borneo supplied large amounts of sediment since at least the Eocene.
The project was funded by the SE Asia Research
Group at Royal Holloway, supported by an oil company
consortium. We thank the Economic Planning Unit Malaysia for permission to conduct field work, Allagu Balaguru for field support, and Mark Barley for help at the
University of Western Australia.

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Manuscript received 19 July 2005
Revised manuscript received 26 February 2006
Manuscript accepted 28 February 2006
Printed in USA

GEOLOGY, July 2006