It is unknown when life first appeared on Earth. The earliest known microfossils (approximately 3,500 Myr before present) are structurally complex, and if it is assumed that the associated organisms required a long time to develop this degree of complexity, then the existence of life much earlier than this can be argued. But the known examples of crustal rocks older than 3,500 Myr have experienced intense metamorphism, which would have obliterated any fragile microfossils contained therein. It is therefore necessary to search for geochemical evidence of past biotic activity that has been preserved within minerals that are resistant to metamorphism. Here we report ion-microprobe measurements of the carbon-isotope composition of carbonaceous inclusions within grains of apatite (basic calcium phosphate) from the oldest known sediment sequences--a approximately 3,800-Myr-old banded iron formation from the Isua supracrustal belt, West Greenland, and a similar formation from the nearby Akilia island that is possibly older than 3,850 Myr. The carbon in the carbonaceous inclusions is isotopically light, indicative of biological activity; no known abiotic process can explain the data. Unless some unknown abiotic process exists which is able both to create such isotopically light carbon and then selectively incorporate it into apatite grains, our results provide evidence for the emergence of life on Earth by at least 3,800 Myr before present.