Old Earth Ministries Online Earth History Curriculum

Presented by Old Earth Ministries (We Believe in an Old Earth...and God!)

This curriculum is presented free of charge for use by homeschooling families and schools.

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Chapter 2 - The Precambrian

Lesson 9: The Archean / Proterozoic Eons


         The Archean is the geologic eon that begins at the end of the Hadeon, approximately 3.8 billion years ago, and it ends about 2.5 billion years ago.  At the beginning of the Archean, the Earth's heat flow was nearly three times higher than it is today, and was still twice the current level by the beginning of the Proterozoic (2,500 Ma). The extra heat may have been remnant heat from the planetary accretion, partly heat of formation of the iron core, and partially caused by greater radiogenic heat production from short-lived radionuclides such as uranium-235.

Chapter 2 - The Precambrian


Lesson 8: Proto-Earth and Hadeon Eon

Lesson 9: Archaen/Proterozoic Eon

Lesson 10: The Earth's Atmosphere

Lesson 11: Stromatolites

Lesson 12: Supercontinents

Lesson 13: Snowball Earth




Fast Facts

Archean Eon 
Started:  3800 Ma
Ended:  2500 Ma
Duration:  1300 Million Years

Proterozoic Eon 
Started:  2500 Ma
Ended:  542 Ma
Duration:  1958 Million Years

     The majority of Archean rocks which still survive are metamorphic and igneous rocks. Volcanic activity was considerably higher than today, with numerous hot spots, rift valleys, and eruption of lavas including unusual types such as komatiite. Nevertheless, intrusive igneous rocks predominate throughout the crystalline cratonic remnants of the Archean crust which survive today. These are magmas which infiltrated into host rocks, but solidified before they could erupt at the Earth's surface. Examples include great melt sheets and voluminous plutonic masses of granite, diorite, layered intrusions, anorthosites and monzonites known as sanukitoids.
     The Earth of the early Archean may have had a different tectonic style. Some scientists think that because the Earth was hotter,
plate tectonic activity was more vigorous than it is today, resulting in a much greater rate of recycling of crustal material. This may have prevented cratonisation and continent formation until the mantle cooled and convection slowed down. Others argue that the subcontinental lithospheric mantle was too buoyant to subduct, and that the lack of Archean rocks is a function of erosion by subsequent tectonic events. The question of whether or not plate tectonic activity existed in the Archean is an active area of modern geoscientific research.
     There were no large continents until late in the Archean: small protocontinents were the norm, prevented from coalescing into larger units by the high rate of geologic activity. These
felsic protocontinents probably formed at hotspots rather than subduction zones, from a variety of sources: igneous differentiation of mafic rocks to produce intermediate and felsic rocks, mafic magma melting more felsic rocks and forcing granitization of intermediate rocks, partial melting of mafic rock, and from the metamorphic alteration of felsic sedimentary rocks. Such continental fragments may not have been preserved unless they were buoyant enough or fortunate enough to avoid energetic subduction zones.
     An explanation for the general lack of Hadean rocks (older than 3800 Ma) is the amount of extrasolar debris present within the early solar system. Even after planetary formation, considerable volumes of large
asteroids and meteorites still existed, and bombarded the early Earth until approximately 3800 Ma. A barrage of particularly large impactors known as the late heavy bombardment may have prevented any large crustal fragments from forming by literally shattering the early protocontinents.


Archean Palaeoenvironment


     The Archean atmosphere is thought to have lacked free oxygen. Temperatures appear to have been near modern levels even within 500 Ma of Earth's formation, with liquid water present, as evidenced by certain highly deformed gneisses produced by metamorphism of sedimentary protoliths. Astronomers think that the sun was about one-third dimmer than at present, which may have contributed to lower global temperatures than otherwise expected. This is thought to reflect larger amounts of greenhouse gases than later in the Earth's history.
     By the end of the Archaean c. 2600 Mya, plate tectonic activity may have been similar to that of the modern Earth. There are well-preserved sedimentary basins, and evidence of
volcanic arcs, intracontinental rifts, continent-continent collisions and widespread globe-spanning orogenic events suggesting the assembly and destruction of one and perhaps several supercontinents. Liquid water was prevalent, despite the faint young sun paradox, and deep oceanic basins are known to have existed by the presence of banded iron formations, chert beds, chemical sediments and pillow basalts.


Archean geology


     Although a few mineral grains are known that are Hadean, the oldest rock formations exposed on the surface of the Earth are Archean or slightly older. Archean rocks are known from Greenland, the Canadian Shield, the Baltic shield, Scotland, India, Brazil, western Australia, and southern Africa. Although the first continents formed during this eon, rock of this age makes up only 7% of the world's current cratons; even allowing for erosion and destruction of past formations, evidence suggests that continental crust equivalent to only 5-40% of the present amount formed during the Archean.
     In contrast to the Proterozoic, Archean rocks are often heavily metamorphized deep-water sediments, such as
graywackes, mudstones, volcanic sediments, and banded iron formations. Carbonate rocks are rare, indicating that the oceans were more acidic due to dissolved carbon dioxide than during the Proterozoic. Greenstone belts are typical Archean formations, consisting of alternating units of metamorphosed mafic igneous and sedimentary rocks. The meta-igneous rocks were derived from volcanic island arcs, while the metasediments represent deep-sea sediments eroded from the neighboring island arcs and deposited in a forearc basin. Greenstone belts represent sutures between protocontinents.


Archean life


     Fossils of cyanobacterial mats (stromatolites, which were instrumental in creating the free oxygen in the atmosphere) are found throughout the Archean, becoming especially common late in the eon, while a few probable bacterial fossils are known from chert beds. In addition to the domain Bacteria (once known as Eubacteria), microfossils of the domain Archaea have also been identified.
     Life was probably present throughout the Archean, but may have been limited to simple non-nucleated single-celled organisms, called
Prokaryota (formerly known as Monera). There are no known eukaryotic fossils, though they might have evolved during the Archean without leaving any fossils. No fossil evidence yet exists for ultramicroscopic intracellular replicators such as viruses.


Proterozoic Eon


     The Proterozoic Eon began at the end of the Archean, approximately 2.5 billion years ago, and lasts almost 2 billion years, until the beginning of the Cambrian Period.  The geologic record of the Proterozoic is much better than that for the preceding Archean. In contrast to the deep-water deposits of the Archean, the Proterozoic features many strata that were laid down in extensive shallow epicontinental seas; furthermore, many of these rocks are less metamorphosed than Archean-age ones, and many are unaltered.  Study of these rocks shows that the eon featured massive, rapid continental accretion (unique to the Proterozoic), supercontinent cycles, and wholly-modern orogenic activity.
    The first known glaciations occurred during the Proterozoic; one began shortly after the beginning of the eon, while there were at least four during the Neoproterozoic, climaxing with the
Snowball Earth of the Varangian glaciation.[3]

     One of the most important events of the Proterozoic was the buildup of oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere. Though oxygen was undoubtedly released by photosynthesis well back in Archean times, it could not build up to any significant degree until chemical sinks unoxidized sulfur and iron had been filled; until roughly 2.3 billion years ago, oxygen was probably only 1% to 2% of its current level.  Banded iron formations, which provide most of the world's iron ore, were also a prominent chemical sink; most accumulation ceased after 1.9 billion years ago, either due to an increase in oxygen or a more thorough mixing of the oceanic water column.
     Red beds, which are colored by hematite, indicate an increase in atmospheric oxygen after 2 billion years ago; they are not found in older rocks.  The oxygen buildup was probably due to two factors: a filling of the chemical sinks, and an increase in carbon burial, which sequestered organic compounds that would have otherwise been oxidized by the atmosphere.

     The first advanced single-celled and multi-cellular life roughly coincides with the start of the accumulation of free oxygen; this may have been due to an increase in the oxidized nitrates that eukaryotes use, as opposed to cyanobacteria.[6] It was also during the Proterozoic that the first symbiotic relationships between mitochondria (for nearly all eukaryotes) and chloroplasts (for plants and some protists only) and their hosts evolved.
     The blossoming of eukaryotes such as
acritarchs did not preclude the expansion of cyanobacteria; in fact, stromatolites reached their greatest abundance and diversity during the Proterozoic, peaking roughly 1.2 billion years ago.
     Classically, the boundary between the Proterozoic and the
Phanerozoic eons was set at the base of the Cambrian period when the first fossils of animals including trilobites and archeocyathids appeared. In the second half of the 20th century, a number of fossil forms have been found in Proterozoic rocks, but the upper boundary of the Proterozoic has remained fixed at the base of the Cambrian, which is currently placed at 542 Ma.


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Source: Archaen, Proterozoic