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Questioning the evidence for Earth's oldest fossils

Abstract

Structures resembling remarkably preserved bacterial and cyanobacterial microfossils from 3,465-million-year-old Apex cherts of the Warrawoona Group in Western Australia1,2,3,4 currently provide the oldest morphological evidence for life on Earth and have been taken to support an early beginning for oxygen-producing photosynthesis5. Eleven species of filamentous prokaryote, distinguished by shape and geometry, have been put forward as meeting the criteria required of authentic Archaean microfossils1,2,3,4,5, and contrast with other microfossils dismissed as either unreliable or unreproducible1,3,6,7. These structures are nearly a billion years older than putative cyanobacterial biomarkers8, genomic arguments for cyanobacteria9, an oxygenic atmosphere10 and any comparably diverse suite of microfossils5. Here we report new research on the type and re-collected material, involving mapping, optical and electron microscopy, digital image analysis, micro-Raman spectroscopy and other geochemical techniques. We reinterpret the purported microfossil-like structure as secondary artefacts formed from amorphous graphite within multiple generations of metalliferous hydrothermal vein chert and volcanic glass. Although there is no support for primary biological morphology, a Fischer–Tropsch-type synthesis of carbon compounds and carbon isotopic fractionation is inferred for one of the oldest known hydrothermal systems on Earth.

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Figure 1: Geological sketch map of the Apex chert at Chinaman Creek, showing sample numbers and site of the Schopf ‘microfossil’ locality (sample 4) from a metalliferous hydrothermal chert breccia vein that cross-cuts hydrothermally altered pillow basalt.
Figure 2: Automontages of inferred artefacts from the Apex chert.
Figure 3: Automontages of inferred artefacts from the Apex chert.
Figure 4: Raman spectra of associated graphitic objects (<1 mm apart) within NHM V.63165.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. A. Stoakes, A. T. Brasier and D. Huston for assistance with field work; N. Charnley, D. Sansom and A. T. Brasier for laboratory support; the Natural History Museum, London, for the loan of the type slides and re-collected material; R. Buick, J. Farmer, J. P. Grotzinger, A. H. Knoll, E. Nisbet, S. Moorbath, J. W. Schopf and R. E. Summons for comments on earlier versions of the manuscript; and The Royal Society, NASA Astrobiology Institute and The Carnegie Institution of Washington for support. This paper is published by permission of the Director of the Geological Survey of Western Australia.

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Correspondence to Martin D. Brasier.

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Brasier, M., Green, O., Jephcoat, A. et al. Questioning the evidence for Earth's oldest fossils. Nature 416, 76–81 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/416076a

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