In the latest 70s, Caribbean geology indirectly received a huge boost via global plate kinematic studies, first from the development of the Seasat and Geosat databases which allowed workers to trace Atlantic fracture zones in detail for the first time (Haxby et al. 1983), and second from the concurrent realisation (Pindell and Dewey 1982) that the Mesozoic Equatorial Atlantic continental reconstruction was much tighter than that proposed by Bullard et al. (1965). With the resulting definition of an accurate North America-South America relative motion history (Pindell and Dewey 1982; Pindell et al. 1988), it became clear that only minor aspects of Caribbean geology could be explained by intra-American relative plate motions. Caribbean geology, with all its long-lived arcs, suture zones, HP/LT belts, non-Atlantic seismic velocity structure, hot-spot volcanism, lack of tuffs in the Bahamas, Yucatan and northern South American marginal sections, extreme pull-apart basins (Cayman Trough), and metamorphic disparities along linear fault zones (Burke et al. 1984), surely could only be understood in terms of a Pacific origin which required significant relative plate migrations. Although a Pacific origin seemed fairly complex at the time, enough was understood about mantle reference frames by 1982 that a Pacific origin could be viewed as being simpler than an in-situ origin: Pindell and Dewey (1982) noted that the Caribbean was nearly steadfast in the mantle reference frame, whereas the American plates had progressively migrated westward over the mantle and engulfed the former between them as an allochthonous mega-terrane. In addition, the kinematic framework of Pindell and Dewey (1982) required that the Yucatan Block rotated anti-clockwise out of the northern Gulf of Mexico, thus predicting a kinematic model for the Gulf of Mexico that would not be verified from direct basement observation for another 20 years.
By the mid- to late 80s, the template for Gulf and Caribbean evolution was in place (Pindell 1985; Pindell et al. 1988; 1990; Burke 1988; Pindell 1993), and the interpretation of numerous sub-regions across the Caribbean could now be contemplated in terms of causes and effects of kinematic evolution. One of the more important developments during all of this was the realisation of the role of lithospheric flexure in sedimentary forelands: the west-to-east younging of load-induced subsidence within the Caribbean foreland basins on Yucatan, the Bahamas and northern South America as the Caribbean Plate was engulfed by the Americas (Pindell et al. 1988) provided tangible proof for the Pacific origin and migration of the Caribbean Plate. This breakthrough also led to the realisation that northern South America had remained a passive margin throughout the Cretaceous, which at the time had enormous implications for better understanding the hydrocarbon potential of Colombia, Venezuela and Trinidad (Pindell 1991).
During the 90s, much Caribbean research was focussed on documenting the relationship between Caribbean plate tectonics and basin development. Pindell (1993), Pindell and Tabbutt (1995), and the various papers in Pindell and Drake (1998) represent some contributions to this end. Concurrently, the Caribbean became the site for some high-profile debates, some of which continue today and include: the role of the Galapagos Hotspot in Caribbean evolution; how a Late Cretaceous slab gap beneath the Caribbean Plate might have affected the distribution of plume basalts; the number and initial cause(s) of magmatic arcs in the Caribbean; the timing of polarity reversal in the Great Caribbean Arc (Aptian vs Campanian) which first allowed the Caribbean Plate to begin entering the gap between the Americas; the fate of subducted slabs in and around the Caribbean; continental accretion mechanisms during arc-continent collisions; the timing of arc inception along the Costa Rica-Panama Arc; the number of arcs comprising the Guerrero Super-terrane of western Mexico, and if these arc(s) are related to the Greater Antilles Arc; and the details of the migration of Chortis along southern Mexico.
The evolutionary model presented here (click to see the full-sized movie) derives from Pindell and Kennan (2009, in press) and represents my current position on the above and other issues facing Caribbean research today, all built into a refined quantitative plate kinematic framework for the circum-Atlantic region and plotted into the Indo-Atlantic hot spot reference frame of Müller et al. (1993). Choosing a hotspot reference frame affords a visually simple way in which to view Caribbean evolution as a movie; in the one given here, the Caribbean Plate is seen to drift north, veer west, and then come to rest while the Americas continue to drift west and engulf the Caribbean. However, it should be noted that the Müller et al. (1993) frame is not the only popular hotspot reference frame; that of Torsvik (2008) considerably reduces the magnitude of the Cretaceous northward drift of the Caribbean, and this difference will remain an important area for future study. Currently, as least some Caribbean paleomagnetic work is best satisfied by incorporating the northward drift of the Müller reference frame.
The accompanying "movie" (click to see the full-sized movie) is thus an updated synthesis of the widely accepted "single-arc Pacific-origin" model for Caribbean evolution. 10 paleotectonic maps through time integrate new concepts and alterations to the earlier models noted above.
New or revised features of this model, generally driven by new data sets, include: