Ancestral Rivers of the World
Antecedence and superimposition are geologic
processes that explain how and why rivers can cut through mountain
systems instead of going around them. The examples here (including
pictures) are from Asia, but other examples can be found
throughout the world.
Arun River, Himalayan Mountains,
China (Tibet), Nepal, India
Euphrates River, Syria
Indus River, Pakistan
Jhelum River, India controlled Kashmir
Selenge River, Russia
Sutlej River & Bhakra Dam, India
Tigris River, Iraq
Yangtze River, China (2 pictures)
Yenisey River, Russia
Himalayan Mountains, China (Tibet), Nepal, India
The highest mountain range in the world, 4 out of the
5 highest peaks in the world (all over 27,000 feet), and a river
runs through it. (Actually there are several rivers that run
through it, but we will only give a picture of one of them.) The
picture below is a vertical view of the Himalayan Mountains. The
bright yellow line marks the border between China (Tibet) to the
north and Nepal to the south. A small piece of India can be seen
in the lower right corner.
Mt. Everest at 29,035 feet is the highest mountain in
the world. The summit is under the second “e” in the “Everest”
label. Lhotse (label not shown) tops out at 27,940 feet and is
just 2 miles to the southeast. Makalu at 27,766 feet is 12 miles
east-southeast of Everest and is the 5th highest mountain in the
world. Kanchenjunga at 28,169 is the third highest and can be
found on the Nepal/India border in the lower right hand corner.
Water drainage from the slopes of Mount Everest is an
interesting study in antecedence. Starting from the top of Mt.
Everest, the Rongbuk Glacier flows 11 miles to the north-northwest
into China. The Rongbuk Monastery is 16 miles NNW of Everest and
can be reached by road from China. Melt water from the glacier
becomes part of the headwaters for the Rong River.
22 miles north-northwest of Everest, the Rong River
turns eastward. You can locate this point in the above picture by
going NNW from Everest until you intersect a faint yellow road.
The Rong River flows ENE and then ESE until it joins the Arun
River some 33 miles northeast of Mt. Everest. (This is near the
intersection of two local “roads” - faint yellow lines in the
The Arun River flows nearly due south from this
point. If you look closely, you can follow its path from the road
intersection (above), across the China/Nepal border (the crest of
the Himalayas), and through the “a” in “Europa”.
60 million years ago the Himalayan Mountains did not
exist. The rock that would become Mt. Everest was 450 to 500
million year old sedimentary layers that were at or below sea
level and somewhere well south of the current location of Mt.
Everest. These sedimentary rocks contained fossils of trilobites,
crinoids, and other animals that once lived in a much earlier
ocean. What was then the southern coast of China was located
somewhere near the northern border of present day India. The
ancestor of the Arun River flowed southward over these lowlands.
Meanwhile, the subcontinent of India had rifted away
from the east coast of Africa and was being rafted
north-northeastward by convection currents in the upper part of
the Earth’s mantle. Movement was a relatively rapid several inches
The collision between India and China began about 50
million years ago. By 40 million years ago the intervening ocean
was gone. The Indian subcontinent was plowing into China. The
leading edge of the subcontinent had to go somewhere, and the most
convenient direction was to dive under China. This extra buoyant
material began to lift what had been the Chinese lowlands. The
uplift of the Tibetan Plateau began.
The 450 to 500 million year old sedimentary rock that
had been in-between India and China, including the Mt. Everest
limestones and sandstones, also had to go somewhere. As these
rocks were crumpled together, they broke into slabs, and then the
slabs were pushed one on top of the other. In short, the only
direction the sedimentary layers could go was up - bigtime up.
As the old sedimentary layers rose out of the ocean,
the ancestral Arun River initially just extended its course
further south out over the new land area. However, it wouldn’t be
long before the Arun had to start eroding into the rising land
mass if it was going to keep its southward course.
The Himalayan Mountain Range has been uplifted
rapidly over the last 30 million years. What had been lowlands in
southern China have been buoyed upward to over 15,000 feet to form
the Tibetan Plateau. The Mt. Everest limestones/sandstones have
been both buoyed upward and stacked (faulted slabs), and the old
trilobites are now found at 29,000 feet above sea level.
The Arun River has cut downward into this rising mass
(mess?) but not as fast as the land has been uplifted. It’s been:
“uplift 2 feet”, “cut down 1 foot”, “uplift 2 feet”, “cut down 1
foot”, etc. However, the Arun’s erosion has been good enough for
the river to maintain its course.
The Himalayan Mountains are still rising today. The
Arun is still eroding down into this rising mountain mass. Today
the Arun is cutting a steep gorge across the Himalayas. In all
probability the Arun will win this contest, and millions of years
from now it will have dug a canyon 10,000 or more feet deep across
Further out in the future, the Himalayas will stop
rising and erosion will begin to level them. Two hundred million
years from now the Himalayas will be mere stumps, but the Arun
River will be an old drainage system that cuts across these
stumps. If you could take a “future” picture, it might look like
the current “unknown tributary in the northern Ural Mountains”.
(See the picture on the European page. http://www.durangobill.com/AncestralRivers/AncestralRiversEurope.html
The Euphrates River originates in the mountains of
Turkey, flows southward into Syria, and then turns east-southeast
through eastern Syria and Iraq. Eastern Syria is a dry desert.
Areas near the Euphrates have water available for irrigation, and
the resulting vegetation shows up as dark areas. If water is not
available, the land is dry sand and rock, and has a lighter color.
In the picture above, the Euphrates River is flowing
from left to right through a mesa in eastern Syria. The low
farmland both upstream and downstream from the mesa is about 700
feet above sea level while the mesa ranges from 1,000 feet to
1,150 feet. Information on the origin of the mesa is lacking, and
the Google Earth image has relatively low resolution. Thus, its
geologic history is not known and the following “eyeball analysis”
by the author should be considered speculative.
It appears the mesa is the result of a series of
recent fluidic lava flows. (The area apparently is not included in
the USGS database of volcanoes, but there are some obvious cinder
cones 30 miles to the WNW that are not included either.) If this
conclusion is correct, then the mesa and the short canyon that the
Euphrates has cut would be the result of the following sequence of
1) Five to ten million years ago the Euphrates River flowed
through the valley. The mesa did not exist yet.
2) Sometime during the last few million years, volcanic eruptions
of fluid lava covered the area that is now the mesa. These
volcanic eruptions would form temporary dams across the river. The
river would quickly overflow interim layers that were built up,
and try to start cutting a canyon down through the mesa. However,
subsequent eruptions and lava flows would fill in these initial
attempts to cut a canyon, and leave a new flat surface.
3) The volcanic eruptions ended perhaps one to two million years
ago (+/-). Since then the Euphrates has cut down through the mesa
to generate its canyon. Ordinary erosion has also removed some of
the surrounding terrain that was not protected by the hard lava
layer. The steep sides of the canyon plus the fact that they have
not eroded very far back from the river indicate that this has all
been done very recently.
The picture above looks southwestward over the Indus
River some 45 miles west-northwest of Islamabad, Pakistan. The
Indus River enters the field of view from the lower edge and flows
southwestward. This is another example of antecedence as the Indus
was in place first, and the two ridges that it cuts through have
been uplifted in the last few million years.
The Indus River looks like it is the result of two
separate pieces. The lower half of the river flows
south-southwestward from the Karakoram Mountains to the Indian
Ocean. The headwaters section is somewhat similar to the Arun
River in that it originates on the north side of the Himalayan
Mountains in China. The headwaters drain about 20,000 sq. miles
inside China (Tibet) before the river heads northwestward for 500
miles in what looks like a fault-aided, end run to get around the
Himalayas. This implies that the Himalayas were in place first and
the river drainage developed in response to Himalayan topography.
However, this course for the river takes it directly
into the Karakoram Mountains including flowing within 60 miles of
K2. K2 tops out at 28,250 feet above sea level making it the
second highest mountain in the world. Thus, the headwaters of the
Indus appear to be antecedent to the Karakoram Mountains. If we
combine the two relative time sequences, we can conclude the
Karakoram Mountains are younger than the main ranges of the
India controlled Kashmir
The picture above shows the Jhelum
River, which is a tributary to the Indus River. All the preceding
descriptions for the Himalayan and Karakoram Mountains again
In the picture we see a flat valley at about 5,100
feet above sea level with towering mountains that rise above
13,000 feet in back of the valley. Does the river flow out of the
mountains or does it flow into the mountains?
The Jhelum River was in place before the mountains
were uplifted. As they rose the Jhelum was able to erode rock that
kept getting in the way. We are looking downstream. The river
flows into the mountains and cuts an 8,000 foot deep canyon in the
To give you some idea of the distances involved, it
is 17 miles from the village of Hajan to the distant dot which
marks the village of Baramula.
The Himalayas get all the attention when it comes to
Asian mountain ranges, but there are other significant mountain
ranges that are cut by major rivers. The picture above shows the
Selenge River which is the largest river that flows into Russia’s
Lake Baikal (Lake Baykal).
The river of course flows from the flatlands in the
foreground through the mountains to reach Lake Baikal which is
about 50 linear miles to the northwest of where the river enters
The mountain range in the background is the
Khamar-Daban. The highest peaks rise some 2,000 feet above the
Lake Baikal is of geologic interest as it is part of
a rift system system in the middle of the Asian continent. As the
rift spreads apart, Lake Baikal is getting bigger.
& Bhakra Dam, India
The Sutlej River is still another river that starts
on the north side of the Himalayas, and then flows south through
the range. In its headwaters in China (Tibet) it’s known as the
Xiangquan River. (Happiness is just looking up how to spell it - I
don’t have to pronounce it.)
The picture above shows the reservoir behind the
Bhakra Dam in the foothills of the Himalayas. The main ranges are
off the left side of the picture. These low ridges are just in
their initial stages of uplift. Perhaps in a few tens of millions
of years, they will rival Mt. Everest.
The Sutlej River was of course here before the right
ridge began to rise. (However, it looks like the rising ridges
pushed it around a bit before it settled into its present course.)
If you filled in the gap where the dam is located, the river could
make an end run off the lower edge of the picture and find a
500-foot lower escape route. However, when the ridge began to
rise, the Sutlej was able to erode down through the rising ridge
and thus today, it takes the illogical route.
Where a river cuts through a ridge as in the above
picture, it makes an ideal place to build a hydroelectric dam. The
dam itself is 741 feet high which is slightly higher than the
Hoover Dam on the Arizona/Nevada border.
The picture above shows the Tigris River where it
diagonally cuts though the Jabal Hamrin mountain ridge in northern
Iraq. Very little is known about the uplift history other
than what can be seen in the picture. The ridge rises about 1,000
feet above the river.
The small amount of detail that can be seen via
Google Earth shows that the ridge is composed of tilted layers of
sedimentary rock. It is also about 55 miles west-southwest of
Kirkuk and its associated oilfields. There are similar NW-SE
trending ridges that extend through the oilfields area. Thus, it
is assumed that the Jabal Hamrin ridge is part of the same system,
and probably dates back over 50 million years.
China (2 pictures)
China has probably the most widespread ongoing
geologic activity in Asia. The downside of this is that they have
had many devastating earthquakes that have killed thousands of
There are multiple areas in China where rivers
cut through mountain systems instead of going around them. We will
only concentrate on one river, the Yangtze, but will use two
The picture above shows the Yangtze River and some of
its tributaries in central China. The Yangtze enters from the
lower edge and flows northeastward off the right portion of the
top edge. Three major tributaries join at left (the Fu, Jialing,
and Qu) and the combination joins the Yangtze. The Wu joins from
Of interest are the ridges that are cut by these
rivers. The ridges rise anywhere from 500 to 1,500 feet above the
river systems. They look remarkably similar to the river/ridge
systems in the northeastern United States. (See Ancestral Rivers
of the Eastern United States). While very little is known about
the uplifted history here in China, the similarity suggests that
this also an example of superimposition.
The Wu (enters from the right) and is no slouch as it
cuts across upturned sedimentary ridges to produce a 4,000-foot
deep canyon just inside the right edge. What will be of even more
interest will be the Yangtze (in the next picture) when it cuts to
the right, from the lowlands, back into these high ridges.
Actual river elevations and the areas between the
ridges typically run between 500 and 1,000 feet above sea level.
The horizontal extent of the picture spans about 120 miles from
the bottom edge to the top edge. Keep these dimensions in mind as
you view the next picture.
The picture above is another view of the Yangtze, but
this is further downstream in the famous Yangtze Gorges. (The
Three Gorges Dam is about 60 linear miles downstream and off the
right edge.) The Yangtze is cutting across ridge systems that
range from 4,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. At the right cut,
the mountain rises abruptly more than a mile above the river.
The Daning River is a tributary to the Yangtze. It
enters from the top edge (right of center) and flows
south-southeastward to join the Yangtze. It has also cut through
the ridge to form its own little gorge that is several thousand
The uplift history in this area is not known.
However, given the magnitude involved, it is probable that this
area of the Yangtze is an example of antecedence. The river and
its tributaries were here first, and the mountains were uplifted
later. The Yangtze has had enough erosion power to abrade away the
mountains as they rose. It is probable that the historical
elevation of the Yangtze has not changed much. The contrary
argument that the Yangtze started at an elevation equal to the
current tops of the mountains would have to account for the huge
upstream land area that is currently below 1,000 feet.
The final river that we will look at is the Yenisey
River in Russia. There are many more examples of rivers in Asia
that cut through mountain ranges instead of finding some other
easier route, but there is a limit to what we can reasonably look
The picture above shows the remote Sayan Mountains in
southern Russia. The crest of the range typically runs between
6,000 and 8,000 feet. The lowlands to the right of the range are
1,700 to 1,800 feet. And of course the Yenisey River flows from
right to left across the mountain range.
The Yenisey is the fifth longest river in the world
and one of the major rivers of Siberian Russia. Some 2,000 miles
off the left edge of the picture, it empties into the Arctic
The large lake that can be seen to the right of the
mountains is the upstream end of the large reservoir that has
backed up behind the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam (various spellings)
which is off the left side of the picture. The reservoir backs up
all the way through the mountains.
The uplift history of the Sayan Mountains is not known.
Erosional patterns indicate the mountains have been subject to
erosion for perhaps 50 million years. Google Earth doesn’t show
recent earthquakes in the area, but other sources do show
earthquake activity. Some recent uplift appears to be continuing.
It is obvious that the Yenisey River was in place first before the
mountains were uplifted. Thus this is another example of
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