Swiss Journal of Geosciences

, Volume 112, Issue 2–3, pp 325–339 | Cite as

On the pre-history of the turbidite concept: an Alpine perspective on occasion of the 70th anniversary of Kuenen’s 1948 landmark talk

  • Dominik LetschEmail author


The recognition of turbidity currents as an important geological agent of sediment transport, sedimentation, and erosion 70 years ago, initiated a bonanza in clastic sedimentology and led to new interpretations of both recent marine sediments and ancient sedimentary rocks. Only scarce attention had been paid to graded bedding, a hallmark of turbidites, before ca. 1930 and almost nobody had linked it to episodic mass flow sedimentation. This article is an addition to the pre-history of the turbidite revolution from an Alpine, and more specifically, a Swiss perspective. It focuses on two time periods, the early and middle part of the eighteenth century and the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. In the former period, Swiss naturalists such as Scheuchzer and Gruner had not only recognized the ubiquity of graded bedding in some Alpine flysch successions, but also proposed hypotheses as to its likely origin. In doing so, Gruner invoked in 1773 periodic sediment mobilization due to bottom currents on the floor of an ante-diluvian sea, resulting in distinct episodes of sediment settling giving rise to normally graded layers. Gruner’s model was inspired by several contemporaneous pioneers of experimental clastic sedimentology. This interest in physical sedimentology declined during the nineteenth century and it was only with the start of the second period discussed herein that geologists began to re-appreciate the importance of sediment movement at the bottom of the oceans. This time, inspiration came from the practical experience of Swiss geologists with shore collapse events and subsequent sedimentary mass flows in lakes. Building on that, they were able to better interpret parts of the Alpine sedimentary record, especially flysch successions. However, it was only with Bailey, Migliorini, Kuenen and others during the 1930s and 1940s that the link between mass flows and graded bedding was finally established.


Flysch Wildflysch Mass flow sedimentation Eighteenth century geology Turbidites Limnogeology History of sedimentology Shore collapse Applied geology 



I want to express my gratitude to Andreas Bayer (Calgary) for the many inspiring discussions on the mysteries of mass flow sedimentation within the Swiss wildflysch, and on many other (also non-geological) topics, be it in the field, via e-mail, or on occasion of decent lunches in Zurich’s Brasserie Lipp and elsewhere. Two anonymous reviewers are acknowledged for their positive feedbacks. I also take the opportunity to dedicate this article, the writing of which has been motivated by the 70th anniversary of Kuenen’s first turbidite paper, to Wilfried Winkler on occasion of his 70th birthday. This is in recognition of Wilfried’s substantial contributions over the past decades to our knowledge of turbidite-dominated sedimentary successions in the Alps and elsewhere.

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ZollikonSwitzerland

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