Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago

Nature. 2001 Jan 11;409(6817):175-8. doi: 10.1038/35051550.


No crustal rocks are known to have survived since the time of the intense meteor bombardment that affected Earth between its formation about 4,550 Myr ago and 4,030 Myr, the age of the oldest known components in the Acasta Gneiss of northwestern Canada. But evidence of an even older crust is provided by detrital zircons in metamorphosed sediments at Mt Narryer and Jack Hills in the Narryer Gneiss Terrane, Yilgarn Craton, Western Australia, where grains as old as approximately 4,276 Myr have been found. Here we report, based on a detailed micro-analytical study of Jack Hills zircons, the discovery of a detrital zircon with an age as old as 4,404+/-8 Myr--about 130 million years older than any previously identified on Earth. We found that the zircon is zoned with respect to rare earth elements and oxygen isotope ratios (delta18O values from 7.4 to 5.0%), indicating that it formed from an evolving magmatic source. The evolved chemistry, high delta18O value and micro-inclusions of SiO2 are consistent with growth from a granitic melt with a delta18O value from 8.5 to 9.5%. Magmatic oxygen isotope ratios in this range point toward the involvement of supracrustal material that has undergone low-temperature interaction with a liquid hydrosphere. This zircon thus represents the earliest evidence for continental crust and oceans on the Earth.