Early Archaean rocks and geochemical evolution of the earth’s crust

Remnants of Early Archaean rocks (>FX3000 m.y. old) are reported from most continents. A critical review of the radiometric data shows that few of these are well authenticated and most are very limited in extent. The oldest are predominantly plutonic gneisses of tonalitic-to-granitic composition (e.g., the basement gneisses of West Greenland, Labrador, Rhodesia and South Africa). In all cases there are inclusions of meta-volcanic and sedimentary rocks with greenstone belt affinities which probably represent crust into which the igneous parents of the gneisses were intruded. The trace element chemistry of these very old rocks is reviewed in an attempt to establish the mechanism of formation of early crust and place constraints on the chemical evolution of the earth's mantle. “Mantle-type” Sr isotope compositions show that the sialic members of both early gneisses and greenstone belts were not derived from much older crustal differentiates, either at 3800 or at 2800 m.y. ago. However, trace element ratios such as K/Rb and Sr/Ba, and rare earth element abundances, are not consistent with direct derivation of the plutonic suite from the upper mantle and also rule out a common parentage for the tonalites and granites. An origin by partial melting of metamorphosed juvenile crust with a composition range equivalent to that represented by the greenstone belts is preferred. Tonalites resulted from high-pressure melting of mafic garnet-amphibolite and at least some of the granites from low-pressure melting of more felsic (possibly even sedimentary) material. The trace element chemistry of the greenstone belt volcanics is thought to characterize the composition of early mantle melts, although the best preserved and best documented cases are about 500–1000 m.y. younger than the oldest known gneisses. The dominant type is tholeiite with low incompatible element contents and light-depleted or essentially flat rare earth patterns, features even more marked in the ultramafic komatiites which represent large degrees of melting. More evolved calc-alkaline rocks with relative incompatible and light rare earth element enrichment are also important. With the exception of the ultramafic lavas, all these types can be matched by the chemistry of present-day oceanic volcanism. It is concluded that the range of trace element variations in the earth's mantle was comparable in early Archaean times to that at the present. This is supported by mass balance calculations for the lithophile elements which have been preferentially extracted into the crust. Thus the isotope and trace element evidence of the oldest rocks argues against primary differentiation of the crust either during accretion of the earth or during its first 500 m.y. as a solid body. Crust formation has probably occurred continuously, although worldwide evidence for magmatism at around 2800 m.y. ago probably marks a particularly active period.


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Authors: O'Nions, R.K., Pankhurst, R.J.

1 January, 1978
Earth and Planetary Science Letters / 38
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