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Archean Eon
4000–2500 million years ago
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Millions of years

The Archean Eon (pronunciation: /ɑːrˈkən/, also spelled Archaean) is a geologic eon, 4,000 to 2,500 million years ago (that is, 4 to 2.5 billion years ago), following the Hadean Eon and preceding the Proterozoic Eon. During the Archean, the earth's crust and layers had just formed, making the Earth much cooler than it was during the Hadean and allowing the formation of continents.

Etymology and changes in classification

Archean (as well as its alternative spelling, Archaean) comes from the ancient Greek Αρχή (Arkhē), meaning "beginning, origin". It is earliest attested from 1872, when it meant "of the earliest geological age." [1] This is because in older[when?] literature, the Hadean Eon was included as part of the Archean.[citation needed]

Instead of being based on stratigraphy, the beginning and end of the Archean Eon are defined chronometrically. The eon's lower boundary or starting point of 4 Gya (4 billion years ago) is officially recognized by the International Commission on Stratigraphy.[2]

The Archean Eon's start of 4 Gya is also the end of the Hadean Eon.[citation needed]

Earth at the beginning of the Archean

The Archean is one of the four principal eons of Earth history. When the Archean began, the Earth's heat flow was nearly three times as high as it is today, and it was still twice the current level at the transition from the Archean to the Proterozoic (2,500 million years ago). The extra heat was the result of a mix of remnant heat from planetary accretion, heat from the formation of the Earth's core, and heat produced by radioactive elements.

Most surviving Archean rocks are metamorphic or igneous. Volcanic activity was considerably higher than today, with numerous lava eruptions, including unusual types such as komatiite. Granitic rocks predominate throughout the crystalline remnants of the surviving Archean crust. Examples include great melt sheets and voluminous plutonic masses of granite, diorite, layered intrusions, anorthosites and monzonites known as sanukitoids.

The evolution of Earth's radiogenic heat flow over time.

The Earth of the early Archean may have supported a tectonic regime unlike that of the present. Some scientists argue that, because the Earth was much hotter, tectonic activity was more vigorous than it is today, resulting in a much faster rate of recycling of crustal material. This may have prevented cratonisation and continent formation until the mantle cooled and convection slowed down. Others argue that the oceanic lithosphere was too buoyant to subduct, and that the rarity of Archean rocks is a function of erosion by subsequent tectonic events. The question of whether plate tectonic activity existed in the Archean is an active area of modern research.[3]

There are two schools of thought concerning the amount of continental crust that was present in the Archean. One school maintains that no large continents existed until late in the Archean: small protocontinents were common, prevented from coalescing into larger units by the high rate of geologic activity.[citation needed] The other school follows the teaching of Richard Armstrong, who argued that the continents grew to their present volume in the first 500 million years of Earth history and have maintained a near-constant ever since: throughout most of Earth history, recycling of continental material crust back to the mantle in subduction or collision zones balances crustal growth.[citation needed]

Opinion is also divided about the mechanism of continental crustal growth. Those scientists who doubt that plate tectonics operated in the Archean argue that the felsic protocontinents formed at hotspots rather than subduction zones. Through a process called "sagduction", which refers to partial melting in downward-directed diapirs, a variety of mafic magmas produce intermediate and felsic rocks.[citation needed] Others accept that granite formation in island arcs and convergent margins was part of the plate tectonic process, which has operated since at least the start of the Archean.[citation needed]

An explanation for the general lack of Hadean rocks (older than 3800 Ma) is the efficiency of the processes that either cycled these rocks back into the mantle or effaced any isotopic record of their antiquity. All rocks in the continental crust are subject to metamorphism, partial melting and tectonic erosion during multiple orogenic events, and the chance of survival at the surface decreases with increasing age. In addition, a period of intense meteorite bombardment in the period 4.0-3.8 Ga pulverized all rocks at the Earth's surface during the period. Some think that the similar age of the oldest surviving rocks and the "late heavy bombardment" is not coincidental.[citation needed]


The Archean atmosphere is thought to have nearly lacked free oxygen. Astronomers think that the sun had about 70–75 percent of the present luminosity, yet temperatures appear to have been near modern levels even within 500 Ma of Earth's formation, which is puzzling (the faint young Sun paradox). The presence of liquid water is evidenced by certain highly deformed gneisses produced by metamorphism of sedimentary protoliths. The equable temperatures may reflect the presence of larger amounts of greenhouse gases than later in the Earth's history.[4][5] Alternatively, Earth's albedo may have been lower at the time, due to less land area and cloud cover.[6]

By the end of the Archaean c. 2500 Ma (million years ago), plate tectonic activity may have been similar to that of the modern Earth. There are well-preserved sedimentary basins, and evidence of volcanic arcs, intracontinental rifts, continent-continent collisions and widespread globe-spanning orogenic events suggesting the assembly and destruction of one and perhaps several supercontinents. Liquid water was prevalent, and deep oceanic basins are known to have existed by the presence of banded iron formations, chert beds, chemical sediments and pillow basalts.


Although a few mineral grains are known that are Hadean, the oldest rock formations exposed on the surface of the Earth are Archean or slightly older. Archean rocks are known from Greenland, the Canadian Shield, Montana and Wyoming (exposed parts of the Wyoming Craton), the Baltic Shield, Scotland, India, Brazil, western Australia, and southern Africa. Although the first continents formed during this eon, rock of this age makes up only 7% of the world's current cratons; even allowing for erosion and destruction of past formations, evidence suggests that continental crust equivalent to only 5-40% of the present amount formed during the Archean.[7]

In contrast to Proterozoic rocks, Archean rocks are often heavily metamorphized deep-water sediments, such as graywackes, mudstones, volcanic sediments, and banded iron formations. Carbonate rocks are rare, indicating that the oceans were more acidic due to dissolved carbon dioxide than during the Proterozoic.[8] Greenstone belts are typical Archean formations, consisting of alternating units of metamorphosed mafic igneous and sedimentary rocks. The meta-igneous rocks were derived from volcanic island arcs, while the metasediments represent deep-sea sediments eroded from the neighboring island arcs and deposited in a forearc basin. Greenstone belts represent sutures between protocontinents.[9]

Early life in the Archean

The processes that gave rise to life on Earth are not completely understood, but there is substantial evidence that life came into existence either near the end of the Hadean Eon or early in the Archean Eon. Biogenic carbon has been detected in zircons dated to 4.1 billion years ago, but this evidence is preliminary and needs validation.[10] More solid indirect evidence comes from banded iron formations in greenstones dated to 3.7 billion years ago. The formation of banded iron deposits is thought to require oxygen, and the only known source of molecular oxygen in the Archean Eon was photosynthesis, which implies life. The earliest identifiable fossils consist of stromatolites—accretionary structures formed in shallow water by micro-organisms—dated to 3.5 billion years ago.[11]

The Hadean atmosphere was dominated by carbon dioxide and nitrogen (in much the same ratio as in the present day atmospheres of Venus and Mars) but with some NO, CO, P4O10, SO2 and native sulfur. These gases could have accumulated in the atmosphere because volcanic eruptions were between 10 and 100 times more prolific in the Hadean than today[12] Thus, the Hadean Ocean was a reservoir of the inorganic elements required of the earliest catalysts of organic reactions and, ultimately, enzymes. The presence of the late Hadean Ocean in the early parts of the Archaean would be the reason why life started in the Archaean and not the Hadean, as more time was allotted as well as the presence of the ideal conditions.[citation needed].

Water bodies on dry land, the atmosphere, beaches, sea ice, the sea surface micro-layer, marine sediments, oceanic crusts and hydrothermal systems all contributing to the Hadean micro-environment, would have a drastic impact on the origin of life in the Archaean. The atmosphere (the layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is retained by Earth's gravity) has had the most pivotal role since the Miller and Urey experiments in 1953. Their experiments demonstrated the production of biologically important organic compounds (including amino acids) by passing electric charge through a mixture of gases which were at the time considered to be the components of Earth’s early, reducing atmosphere (H2O, CH4, H2 and NH3).[13]

The Hadean atmosphere could also have hosted particulate matter with catalytic surfaces. On the modern Earth, natural dust particles are largely derived from continental erosion. Dehydration of amino acids during atmospheric transport has been suggested as a mechanism for activation and polymerization. Additionally, amphiphiles (organic molecules with both hydrophilic and lipophilic properties) including stearic and oleic acids have been shown to form exterior films on marine aerosols that could have served as proto-membranes in prebiotic chemistry.[14][15]

Another important role of the modern atmosphere is to protect life in surface environments from solar UV radiation. In the Hadean, the Sun’s output in the extreme UV range was stronger than it is today while at the same time the Earth was lacking a protective ozone layer. It is possible that a hydrocarbon haze acted as a UV shield transparent to visible, but in the absence of a UV shield, solar UV radiation could have had both positive and negative impacts on prebiotic chemical reactions in the lower atmosphere and in surface exposed settings, through either activating or destroying prebiotic molecules.

Life in the Archaean may have been either very developed as to what we might have expected, or might be a little less so. The production of life has to do with the geological structures present at the time that it was being formed including the relative abundances of each of the elements in the surroundings. This conclusion comes from the Archaean landscape, which at that time consisted of volcanic and tectonic plate activities in the greenstone belts found on the mainland of Greenland. One such example is that of MORB, a primitive Archaean volcanic sediment found in the greenstone belt, which led to the emissions of CO2 and O2 due to the volcanic eruptions at the time.[16]

Prerequisites for the origin of life such as energy, synthesis of organic carbon compounds, catalysis and the concentration of medium can all be seen in both, the Late Hadean as well as Early Archean environments, at different levels at different places on the landscape, allowing for multiregional origin of life hypothesis to be drawn. Also, the microbial life that might have been formed at the time would have been so small that it would have been very easy for this life to travel long distances on the entropic Early Earth and allow the search got LUCA (our Last Universal Common Ancestor) to continue.[17]

The earliest pieces of evidence for life on Earth are graphite found to be biogenic in 3.7 billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks discovered in Western Greenland[18] and microbial mat fossils found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone discovered in Western Australia.[19][20] More recently, in 2015, "remains of biotic life" were found in 4.1 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia.[21][22] According to one of the researchers, "If life arose relatively quickly on Earth ... then it could be common in the universe."[21]

Fossils of cyanobacterial mats (stromatolites, which were instrumental in creating the free oxygen in the atmosphere[23] ) are found throughout the Archean,[24] becoming especially common late in the eon, while a few probable bacterial fossils are known from chert beds.[25] In addition to the domain Bacteria (once known as Eubacteria), microfossils of the domain Archaea have also been identified.

To study the Archaean age fossils that would have formed as agglutination bubbles in the rock takes a lot of work regarding, but not limited to, the study of rocks from that era which may contain life, including stromatolites. Stromatolites are solid structures created by single-celled microbes called cyanobacteria. They are both micro as well as macro examples of life in the Archaean era. The larger the number of cyanobacteria “bonded together” make larger and larger stromatolites, and lesser the number, the smaller are these structures.

It is difficult at times to perceive whether a rock may be just that, or a stromatolite. However, the ones from the following places are “likely” stromatolites. Studies of these fossils can be found from places such as Zimbabwe, Australia, Canada and South Africa.

Earth was very hostile before 4.2 – 4.3 Ga, and the conclusion is that before the Archaean Era Life would have been very difficult to uphold, but it still can be said that the very beginnings of life could have taken earlier, but the conditions necessary to sustain it could only have been possible in the Archaean era.[26]

Life was probably present throughout the Archean, but may have been limited to simple non-nucleated single-celled organisms, called Prokaryota (formerly known as Monera). There are no known eukaryotic fossils, though they might have evolved during the Archean without leaving any fossils.[27] No fossil evidence has been discovered for ultramicroscopic intracellular replicators such as viruses.


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See also

External links