At greater than 3.7 Gyr, Earth's oldest known supracrustal rocks, comprised dominantly of mafic igneous with less common sedimentary units including banded iron formation (BIF), are exposed in southwest Greenland. Regionally, they were intruded by younger tonalites, and then both were intensely dynamothermally metamorphosed to granulite facies (the highest pressures and temperatures generally encountered in the Earth's crust during metamorphism) in the Archaean and subsequently at lower grades until about 1500 Myr ago. Claims for the first preserved life on Earth have been based on the occurrence of greater than 3.8 Gyr isotopically light C occurring as graphite inclusions within apatite crystals from a 5 m thick purported BIF on the island of Akilia. Detailed geologic mapping and observations there indicate that the banding, first claimed to be depositional, is clearly deformational in origin. Furthermore, the mineralogy of the supposed BIF, being dominated by pyroxene, amphibole and quartz, is unlike well-known BIF from the Isua Greenstone Belt (IGB), but resembles enclosing mafic and ultramafic igneous rocks modified by metasomatism and repeated metamorphic recrystallization. This scenario parsimoniously links the geology, whole-rock geochemistry, 2.7 Gyr single crystal zircon ages in the unit, an approximately 1500 Myr age for apatites that lack any graphite, non-MIF sulphur isotopes in the unit and an inconclusive Fe isotope signature. Although both putative body fossils and carbon-12 enriched isotopes in graphite described at Isua are better explained by abiotic processes, more fruitful targets for examining the earliest stages in the emergence of life remain within greater than 3.7 Gyr IGB, which preserves BIF and other rocks that unambiguously formed at Earth's surface.
- © 2006 The Royal Society