The arid Puna plateau of the southern Central Andes is characterized by Cenozoic distributed shortening forming intramontane basins that are disconnected from the humid foreland because of the defeat of orogen-traversing channels. Thick Tertiary and Quaternary sedimentary fills in Puna basins have reduced topographic contrasts between the compressional basins and ranges, leading to a typical low-relief plateau morphology. Structurally identical basins that are still externally drained straddle the eastern border of the Puna and document the eastward propagation of orographic barriers and ensuing aridification. One of them, the Angastaco basin, is transitional between the highly compartmentalized Puna highlands and the undeformed Andean foreland. Sandstone petrography, structural and stratigraphic analysis, combined with detrital apatite fission-track thermochronology from a ∼6200-m-thick Miocene to Pliocene stratigraphic section in the Angastaco basin, document the late Eocene to late Pliocene exhumation history of source regions along the eastern border of the Puna (Eastern Cordillera (EC)) as well as the construction of orographic barriers along the southeastern flank of the Central Andes. Onset of exhumation of a source in the EC in late Eocene time as well as a rapid exhumation of the Sierra de Luracatao (in the EC) at about 20Ma are recorded in the detrital sediments of the Angastaco basin. Sediment accumulation in the basin began ∼15Ma, a time at which the EC had already built sufficient topography to prevent Puna sourced detritus from reaching the basin. After ∼13Ma, shortening shifted eastward, exhuming ranges that preserve an apatite fission-track partial annealing zone recording cooling during the late Cretaceous rifting event. Facies changes and fossil content suggest that after 9Ma, the EC constituted an effective orographic barrier that prevented moisture penetration into the plateau. Between 3.4 and 2.4Ma, another orographic barrier was uplifted to the east, leading to further aridification and pronounced precipitation gradients along the mountain front. This study emphasizes the important role of tectonics in the evolution of climate in this part of the Andes.
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