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Quaternary International 162163 (2007) 133140

Colluvium: Denition, differentiation, and possible suitability for

reconstructing Holocene climate data
Matthias Leopold

, Jo rg Vo lkel
Department of Soil Science, Institute of Geography, University of Regensburg, 93040 Regensburg, Germany
Available online 13 December 2006
This study examines whether colluvial soils store climatic data and if these data can be used as proxies. Colluvial soils, as the correlated
sediments of soil erosion, represent a widespread geoarchive. These soils store the morphology data of the eroded soils and contain clues
as to the processes of the eroded soils formation as well as indications of the pedogenesis which took place after the deposition. All of
these processes are closely related to climatic factors, especially rainfall. This study discusses the genesis of young soils in colluvial
sediments and shows that typical soil features may be related to climatic factors. Furthermore, the study investigates the genesis of
anthropogenic colluvial sediments, which must be seen as a syngenetical product of relief, eld size, time of usage, pressure of population,
farming technique, sediment erodibility, deposition area, and climatic factors. To this end, pedogenic features are separated from the
sedimentological features. The results show that the reconstruction of all factors which control the genesis of the formation of a
colluvium is still not yet possible. This is the necessary precondition for colluvial soils to yield proxy climate data, or for the data to
be correlated with already existing Holocene climate archives. As the results of our discussion are ambiguous in their interpretation,
we conclude that colluvial soils, which clearly include climatic information, cannot be used for the reconstruction of proxy climate data
at present.
r 2006 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
The reconstruction of Holocene climatic variations and
their possible effects on the paleoenvironment plays an
important role in the discussion of global change. Extensive
geoarchives such as ice-cores, sea or lake sediments,
dendrochronology and dendromorphology, advance and
retreat or growth and shrinkage of glaciers, ood loams,
palynology, and others help to successfully reconstruct
certain atmospheric parameters of the past. Paleoair
temperature and precipitation can be most easily determined
from global data, based upon direct measurements dating
back to 1855/1865 (Scho nwiese, 1997). The discovery of new
archives which can be checked for climatic signals is
essential. This paper deals with colluvial soils and their
suitability as geoarchives for preserving paleoclimate data in
a theoretical way, based on eld and laboratory data.
2. Denition of colluvium and colluvial soil
In English writing, the meaning of the term colluvium is
different from the one used in German literature. In
English scientic works, colluvium has a very broad
meaning and becomes a catch-all phrase for slope materials
formed by any one of several processes and in different
A more precise denition is given by French (1992),
where colluvium is a loose, non-stratied, poorly sorted,
heterogeneous mixture of various size grades found on the
lower part and base of slopes. It is generated by three
modes of transport:
(1) overland ow occurs when the saturation capacity of
the soil is exceeded during high rainfall;
(2) soil movements involving splash creep as a result of
rainsplash impact on frost creep; and
(3) downslope displacement of soil as a direct result of
ploughing (Kwaad and Mucher, 1979; Imeson et al.,
1040-6182/$ - see front matter r 2006 Elsevier Ltd and INQUA. All rights reserved.

Corresponding author.
E-mail address: matthias.leopold@geographie.uni-regensburg.de
(M. Leopold).
In German, the general meaning of the English term
colluvium is best translated as slope sediments.
According to Starkel (1987) these slope deposits are strictly
divided by their forming processes into rockfalls, glacial
and periglacial slope deposits, as well as aeolian (loess) and
colluvial deposits which are formed by wind, water and
gravity (see also Vo lkel and Raab, 1999). In Central
Europe, unlike the more arid or semiarid areas in the
world, the climatic conditions and the quality of the soils
during the whole Holocene allowed the development of
dense vegetation. This natural protection prevents nearly
all erosion processes by water or wind which would cause
the formation of a colluvium. So, a differentiation is
necessary between naturally eroded and accumulated
sediments, and those deposited by natural processes but
initiated by human activity (anthropogenic sediments).
Starkel (1987) separates the different facies of anthropo-
genic sediments into: eluvium (products left over by soil
degradation); colluvium (gravitational processes); delu-
vium (products of slope wash); alluvium (overbank loams),
and sediments transported by aeolian processes.
There has been a long history of human impact on the
land that led to the existence of colluvial sediments.
Humans opened the landscape, giving space for soil
erosion and accumulation. In this work, colluvium is
strongly linked with human activity and will be dened
more simply as: sediments deposited due to anthropogenic
induced soil erosion, caused by settling, clearing, mining,
grazing, and/or farming (Leopold, 2003). Colluvium can be
found on any relief position, mainly at the base of slopes
but also on back slopes and summits (Leopold and Vo lkel,
2002). It is often stratied during sedimentation (as in
Fig. 1), depending on the amount of water which is the
main mode of transportation. The process of erosion and
transportation destroys the original structure of the soil.
As colluvium is not always accumulated by one big event
but by many small ones, the sedimentary layers are rather
thin. Over the decades, bioturbation and following
ploughing destroy the original stratication, and the
colluvium is transformed into unsorted and non-stratied
sediment. The accumulated material is now either a new
soil type by its own (a colluvisol) or a sediment parent
material for any pedogenic process to form a new soil.
Either way, it is considered a colluvial soil.
3. Scientic question
Farming as a measurable anthropogenic inuence on the
Central European landscape is indirectly documented by
archeological ndings dating to the Neolithic (about 7000
Fig. 1. A single heavy rainfall event in 1997 produced 0.8 m of modern colluvium on a wheat eld in the Tertiary Hills south of Regensburg/Germany (A).
Clear stratication of white (mainly sand) and grey (mainly silt) layers can be observed and linked to the pulsing of the magnitude during a heavy
downpour (B). Picture C shows a 2000-year-old and 70 cm thick colluvium over the upper part of a soliuction layer. Bioturbation and/or ploughing after
the deposition, destroyed the original stratication and resulted in a typical rather homogeneous matrix. Segment D is shown in Fig. 6.
M. Leopold, J. Volkel / Quaternary International 162163 (2007) 133140 134
years ago). Some colluvial sediments as early as 80009000
years ago have been linked with farming (Semmel, 1995).
These old colluvial sediments are mainly found in former
depressions of the paleo-landscape, which functioned as
sediment traps and were not necessarily at the base of hills
(e.g. Niller, 2001). Later colluvium was mainly transported
downslope, but, depending on the former land use
structure (e.g. eld borders, hedges), it could be deposited
on the midslope or even on the top of the slope. Over
thousands of years, colluvial soils were deposited, in
different positions, under different conditions and in
different environments, which makes them an extensively
spread geoarchive reaching back to the Meso/Neolithic
(Leopold and Vo lkel, 2005a). Firstly, colluvial soils store
information about the period before their deposition based
on the morphology of the eroded soil. Secondly, the
colluvium can provide data about the processes of erosion,
transportation, and deposition during the time of its
formation of a colluvium which is partly controlled by
climatic parameters. Thirdly, colluvial soils store pedogenic
data concerning the environment during the time after their
accumulation. This chronological order is summarized in
Fig. 2, in combination with eld evidence and possible
climate proxy data mainly concerning rainfall. The three-
division schematic of Fig. 2 is used for the following
4. Variation of Holocene climate in Central Europe
Before coming to a conclusion about the suitability of
colluvial soils for climate reconstruction, it is necessary to
examine the uctuation of Holocene climate in general to
identify possible conditions for the pedogenesis and the
formation of colluvial soils. Fig. 3 gives a short overview of
Holocene variations on the temperature and rainfall in
Europe, based on different authors. Patzelt (2000) recon-
structs a maximum air temperature variation of 1.5 1C
from Holocene snow- and timberlines in the Alps. Frenzel
et al. (1992) and Frenzel (1998) calculate an average
cooling of 1.5 1C and a reduction of the annual precipita-
tion with a higher variability during the summer seasons
for the last 6500 years.
Frenzel (2000) connects temperature pessima with time
periods of higher uvial activity of Southern German
rivers. Scho nwiese (1997) documents a variation of 2 1C,
with greater variations during the warmer periods of the
These relatively small variations of the temperature,
mostly affect the vegetation and the production of
organics. In the middle latitudes with moderate climate, a
temperature variation of about 71 1C has little effect on
the intensity of chemical weathering. However, the
precipitation maxima have a large effect on the soils, and
on the genesis and the shaping of a colluvium.
Reconstructing rainfall is much more difcult than
determining uctuations on temperature. Whereas fairly
accurate data exists for the last 1000 years of Middle
Europe (e.g. Glaser, 2001), only a few works deal with the
whole Holocene. In particular, high rainfall events, which
are most responsible for erosion and accumulation of
colluvium, are difcult to reconstruct for prehistoric times.
Rivers and their overbank deposits are used as indicators
of oods that result from high precipitation (e.g. Frenzel,
2000, Fig. 3).
However, climatic variations can be confused with
human activity such as deforestation, which leads to a
Fig. 2. Schematic overview of the theory and the eld evidence of features and processes in colluvial soils, which could be used as possible proxy climate
data. The listing is in a relative age chronology and can be used for colluvium of any age.
M. Leopold, J. Volkel / Quaternary International 162163 (2007) 133140 135
higher occurrence of oods. Pereira (1973) showed the
effects of deforestation on river ow. Evidence of clearing
can be traced back to the Neolithic in Middle Europe
(Bork et al., 1998; Behre, 2000). Because of the conse-
quently ambiguous implications of uvial geoarchives for
rainfall reconstruction, they are less important in this
Long term variations in rainfall often cause changes in
the vegetation pattern, which can be reconstructed from
pollen data. This works especially well in bogs and
stratied lake sediments, which are used as further
geoarchives (Klotz, 2001 personal communication, Guiot
et al., 1989; Seppa and Birks, 2001). These geoarchives
provide average precipitation data for decades which
signicantly inuence pedogenic processes such as decalci-
cation, lessivation, podsolisation, and especially the
formation of redoximorphic features. The intensity of the
chemical weathering, and the formation of the organic
layers, are partly controlled by water levels. It is therefore
clear that heavy rainfall events produce colluvium. The
analysis of these processes in colluvial soils creates a new
database which can aid in determining their suitability as
paleoclimate proxy data.
5. Suitability of colluvium for the reconstruction of pre-
erosional proxy climate data
In moderate and humid middle latitudes, the physical
and chemical properties of parent materials are, in
combination with time, the most important factors of
pedogenesis. In contrast to other areas of the world,
climate is not the dominant factor, but precipitation
Fig. 3. The variation of temperature and precipitation during the Holocene by different authors, in combination with a depiction of uvial erosion phases
in selected German Rivers. The grey zones are extended over all data of the different authors and indicate phases of climatic variability according to
Frenzel (2000). The black rectangles indicate major uvial activity in three diffrent river systems in Germany according to Frenzel (2000). Image is
modied from Leopold and Vo lkel (2002).
M. Leopold, J. Volkel / Quaternary International 162163 (2007) 133140 136
strongly modies soil types. Certain relict features of
eroded soils currently stored in colluvial soils may give
hints of paleoclimate.
Calcic Chernozems (soils of the continental dry middle
latitudes) especially depend on the climate. In Central
Europe, these were mainly formed during the Pre-Boreal
and Boreal, but were altered towards calcic Luvisols due to
higher precipitation in the Atlantic (Fig. 3). Despite the
new discussion about the genesis of Chernozems (Schmidt
et al., 1999), it is commonly accepted that the distribution
was much larger than the present distribution in Germany
(Gehrt, 2000). In places this pedogenic document of
climatic change seems to appear in the colluvial llings of
anthropogenic pits. Many times the back-lls of Neolithic
pits show the characteristic features of calcic Chernozem
soils, e.g. the dark black colour and enrichment in organic
carbon (see Fig. 2). In contrast, the backlls of Bronze Age
pits are mainly brown to grey with low amounts of organic
carbon (e.g. Ko gel-Knabner et al., 2001). If this demon-
strates the degradation of a Chernozem towards a calcic
Luvisol it would be a clear indication of higher precipita-
tion between approximately 4500 BP and 3500 BP (e.g.
Semmel, 2000). As pits are singular features in the soil
pattern, they document only the local soil conditions, and
these could have been greatly inuenced by humans.
Leopold and Vo lkel (2002) believed that stronger
evidence can be obtained from a spatially broader
sediment: colluvium. Textural, chemical and mineralogical
analysis of Neolithic, Bronze Age and Middle Ages
colluvium showed evidence for and against a degradation
of a Chernozem over this time in the loess area around
Regensburg in SE Bavaria. X-ray diffraction analysis on
the clay minerals showed weak secondary chlorites in the
Neolithic colluvium during this time. The formation of
these pedogenic chlorites requires acidication (pH 45),
which suggests a degradation of pre-existing Chernozem
material. The quantity of pedogenic iron oxides found in
the same colluvium also suggests degradation into a
Luvisol (Leopold and Vo lkel, 2002). On the other hand,
high organic carbon (8%) in combination with the darkish
black Neolithic colluvium identies these sediments as the
eroded sediments of a Chernozem with little degradation.
In contrast to studies from anthropogenic pits, no clear
statement concerning paleoclimate data could be drawn
from Neolithic colluvium in this study in SE Bavaria. It
would be worth comparing these data with those in the
present Central European Chernozem areas.
6. Suitability of colluvium for the reconstruction of proxy
climate data simultaneous to the time of deposition
Geoscientists have tried to quantify prehistoric and
historic soil erosion rates several times. Favis-Mortlock et
al. (1997) modelled the soil loss during the last 7000 years
in the South Downs in England. Bork et al. (1998) calculate
the rates of erosion of the last 1400 years for the whole of
Germany. A closer look at these results reveals certain time
periods with high erosion (see also Lang, 2003). In the
South Downs, high rates of erosion are documented during
the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In contrast, in parts of
Germany, the Medieval period (with singular events in the
14th century (Bork and Bork, 1987), produced large
amounts of colluvium. Did erosive downpours occur more
often in these times? If this is the case, correlated sediments
from periods of high rainfall should cause a larger
distribution and greater thickness or volume. For example,
in the study area, Bronze Age colluvium has a signicantly
greater thickness than Roman Age colluvium (Leopold,
2003). To accept this as a climatic signal, one rst has to
check the controlling factors of the genesis of a colluvium.
Fig. 4 shows an overview of the different components
which control the formation and deposition of a colluvium.
The climatic parameters are one aspect out of many factors
that act in concert during the creation of a colluvium. If all
the other factors are known, the proxy climate data can be
calculated; for example, using the distribution and the
volume of colluvial soils.
Fig. 4. Idealized sketch of the different factors controlling the formation of a colluvium, which must be treated as a syngenetic product of these factors.
M. Leopold, J. Volkel / Quaternary International 162163 (2007) 133140 137
Returning to the example of the Bronze Age colluvium,
with a volume greater than that of Roman Age colluvium,
the inuence of climate must be checked against the other
factors of Fig. 4. Leopold and Vo lkel (2002) discussed this
in a comparative table. In contrast to the eld evidence,
consideration of the farming technique, the eld size and
the pressure of population would be expected to create
larger volumes of colluvium during the Roman era.
Is the large volume of Bronze Age colluvium in this
study area a hint of a climate signal? As the difference in
the calculated volume is compared at the same site, relief
plays no role. The difference of the time of usage (Bronze
Age 41000 years, Roman Age 500 years) can be
controlled by dating the sediments and also plays a minor
role. Sediment erodibility and the depositional area are the
only remaining factors.
There are enormous differences within the study area, as
the people of the Bronze Age were the rst to intensively
cultivate the land. They ploughed the soft, silty and
lessivated E-horizons of a calcic Luvisol, which also has a
weak and loose fabric that is highly erosive. In contrast to
the Bronze Age farmers, the Roman people had to cultivate
the Bt-horizon of a calcic Luvisol which is a clay-rich,
dense, and much less erosive horizon. The different
volumes in the colluvial soils could therefore be the result
of these considerable differences in the erodibility of the
different soil horizons cultivated (see also Butler, 1959;
Pesci and Richter, 1996). However, the vegetation of the
depositional area also plays a crucial role. A rough
deposition surface such as a dense grassland is much more
effective in storing colluvial sediments than a smooth one
(for example one partly degenerated due to pasture).
Textural data plotted on a triangular diagram can be
used to identify facies of colluvial soils and suggest their
origin (Fig. 5). All are loess colluvium from roughly the
same source. The differences of the four facies cannot be
fully explained by having different soil horizons as sources,
especially the clayey (#3) and very sandy facies (#4). These
facies could be explained by either climatic conditions or
differences in the depositional area. For example, a heavy
downpour event would wash out the nes and leave the
coarse fractions of facies #4 on the slope. During a weaker
event, the coarse material would be deposited on the
footslope, whereas the ner and lighter materials get
transported to the toeslope. However, the textural separa-
tion could also be caused by a coarse surface at the
footslope, which catches all the coarse sediments even
during a heavy downpour event. It is currently impossible
to reconstruct the roughness of the surface 3000 years back
in time, and the climate versus roughness hypothesis stays
an open question.
To summarize, there are many suggestions of climatic
proxy data in colluvial soils inherited from the time of
deposition. However, there are other factors controlling the
formation of a colluvium that could produce the same
features now found in the eld. Again, a clear and denite
conclusion concerning climate at the time of deposition
cannot be given.
7. Suitability of colluvium for the reconstruction of proxy
climate data for the time after deposition
After colluvium has been deposited, redoximorphic
processes and lessivation of clay form pedogenic features,
which are linked to soil water content and rainfall. To what
extent are these pedogenic features shaped by additional
processes which could provide climate proxy data informa-
tion? The tendency of prehistoric colluvium towards
redoximorphic features is described at several sites (Bork
et al., 1998; Leopold, 2003; Leopold and Vo lkel, 2005b).
Crack-like structures, which are bleached by reduction
processes, are especially common in many loess colluvial
soils (Fig. 6).
Fig. 5. Texture distribution of different colluvium samples (n 60). All of them are sediments of a calcic Luvisol formed from loess. According to the
geomorphic position, four different facies could be differentiated by Leopold (2003), depending either on different soil horizons as sources, different
properties of the deposition area or different precipitation conditions.
M. Leopold, J. Volkel / Quaternary International 162163 (2007) 133140 138
The genesis of the crack-like structures has to be
investigated to interpret this specic phenomenon in
colluvial soils as an indicator for a high precipitation after
the deposition of the colluvial sediment. During the
deposition of a water transported colluvium, the sediment
has a high water content which is drained quickly. This
results in polygonal cracks in the sediments due to
shrinking after drying rather than cracking due to wet
and dry cycles. These vertical irregularities in the sediment
structure are the main drainage routes, even after
consolidation of the colluvial body. After the centuries,
this results in a well-developed preferential water ow with
the concomitant reduction and bleaching of iron oxides.
Land use history also plays an important role on the
genesis of redoximorphic features. Repeated clearing of
vegetation destroys the naturally delayed drainage of the
rainfall, resulting in quicker and more intensive soaking of
the soil followed by drying. This increases the reduction
The vertical movement of clay in a colluvium is another
past-depositional pedogenic feature which is closely linked
to the water content and, therefore, to rainfall. Similar to
the process of reduction, land use history plays a crucial
role. In Middle Europe, intensive lessivation is tied to
agricultural rest and recovery of woodland (a.o. Bork et al.,
1998). In order to understand clay movement as a factor of
precipitation, it is necessary to reconstruct the entire
history of land use, which is impossible for prehistoric
colluvial soils. Leopold and Vo lkel (2002) also documented
that the intensity of the lessivation in colluvium strongly
depends on the topographic position. Colluvium deposited
in shallow hollows on the summit showed much stronger
lessivation than similar old colluvium deposited on the
foot- or toeslope. For example, in a 1500-year old colluvium
on the summit the E-horizon has a clay content of 16.7%
and the Bt-horizon of 31.3%. In contrast a 2000-year old
colluvium at the toeslope shows a total difference of 5.4%
of clay (E-horizon 19.8%; Bt horizon 25.2%). Based on
our data, neither strong redoximorphic features nor the
intensity of the vertical movement of clay can be
exclusively linked to climate data.
8. Synthesis
Colluvial soils are very valuable geoarchives because of
their wide distribution and continuous presence since at
least 7000 years ago. Interacting pedogenic and sedimen-
tologic processes form the syngenetical product, colluvium.
As they are deposited close to the surface, they are
inuenced by climatic processes, and it is possible that
the effects of these processes have been stored. All
pedogenic processes, as well as the formation of a
colluvium itself, are inuenced by rainfall. There is always
uncertainty in identifying all the factors responsible for
colluvium formation, and it gets more difcult the older the
sediment accumulation is.
The climatic conditions prior to the formation of the
colluvium can be estimated from associated features of
eroded soils, some of which are part of the colluvium. Soil
features help to put limits on the climate conditions
following colluvium deposition. However, other factors
including land use complicate our ability to estimate proxy
climate data.
We conclude that colluvial sediments undoubtedly
comprise climatic components, but they cannot be isolated
due to both the complexity and incalculability of the other
controlling factors. Their resolution requires more work.
We would like to thank Dr. Thomas Raab for
constructive discussion on the denition of colluvium and
Fig. 6. A typical loess colluvium with characteristic bleached whitish to greyish features. The crack-like features extend in both horizontally and vertically
over several decimeters. Segment D of Fig. 1 shows fresh cracks one day after the deposition of a loess colluvium. Several cracks are marked with an
M. Leopold, J. Volkel / Quaternary International 162163 (2007) 133140 139
for permitting our use of picture C in Fig. 1. Also, many
thanks to Dr. Stephan Klotz for contributing data of
Holocene rainfall reconstruction from his work (e.g. Fig.
3). Special thanks to Prof. Dr. Michael C. Roberts, SFU
Burnaby, Canada, and two unknown reviewers for their
comments helping to improve the papers quality. Thanks
to Isabelle Leopold for helping with the language.
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