Photosynthetic microbial mats in the 3,416-Myr-old ocean
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Recent re-evaluations of the geological record of the earliest life on Earth have led to the suggestion that some of the oldest putative microfossils and carbonaceous matter were formed through abiotic hydrothermal processes. Similarly, many early Archaean (more than 3,400-Myr-old) cherts have been reinterpreted as hydrothermal deposits rather than products of normal marine sedimentary processes. Here we present the results of a field, petrographic and geochemical study testing these hypotheses for the 3,416-Myr-old Buck Reef Chert, South Africa. From sedimentary structures and distributions of sand and mud, we infer that deposition occurred in normal open shallow to deep marine environments. The siderite enrichment that we observe in deep-water sediments is consistent with a stratified early ocean. We show that most carbonaceous matter was formed by photosynthetic mats within the euphotic zone and distributed as detrital matter by waves and currents to surrounding environments. We find no evidence that hydrothermal processes had any direct role in the deposition of either the carbonaceous matter or the enclosing sediments. Instead, we conclude that photosynthetic organisms had evolved and were living in a stratified ocean supersaturated in dissolved silica 3,416 Myr ago.
author list (cited authors)
Tice, M. M., & Lowe, D. R.