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Episodic growth of the Gondwana supercontinent from hafnium and oxygen isotopes in zircon


It is thought that continental crust existed as early as 150 million years after planetary accretion1, but assessing the rates and processes of subsequent crustal growth requires linking the apparently contradictory information from the igneous and sedimentary rock records. For example, the striking global peaks in juvenile igneous activity 2.7, 1.9 and 1.2 Gyr ago imply rapid crustal generation in response to the emplacement of mantle ‘super-plumes’, rather than by the continuous process of subduction2,3,4. Yet uncertainties persist over whether these age peaks are artefacts of selective preservation5, and over how to reconcile episodic crust formation with the smooth crustal evolution curves inferred from neodymium isotope variations of sedimentary rocks6,7. Detrital zircons encapsulate a more representative record of igneous events than the exposed geology1,8,9 and their hafnium isotope ratios reflect the time since the source of the parental magmas separated from the mantle. These ‘model’ ages are only meaningful if the host magma lacked a mixed or sedimentary source component10, but the latter can be diagnosed by oxygen isotopes, which are strongly fractionated by rock-hydrosphere interactions. Here we report the first study that integrates hafnium and oxygen isotopes, all measured in situ on the same, precisely dated detrital zircon grains. The data reveal that crust generation in part of Gondwana was limited to major pulses at 1.9 and 3.3 Gyr ago, and that the zircons crystallized during repeated reworking of crust formed at these times. The implication is that the mechanisms of crust formation differed from those of crustal differentiation in ancient orogenic belts.

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Figure 1: Plot of ɛHf versus inferred crystallization age for the inherited and detrital zircons analysed in this study, contoured for oxygen isotope composition.
Figure 2: Oxygen isotope composition of all detrital and inherited zircons analysed by this study as a function of crystallization age (error bars at 2 s.e.m.).
Figure 3: Comparison between the crystallization ages of detrital and inherited zircons and the gaussian probability distribution of Hf model ages for zircons of the low δ 18 O arrays.


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We are indebted to J. Craven and C. Graham (Ion Microprobe Facility, University of Edinburgh) for advice and guidance in obtaining the oxygen isotope data, G. Foster, C. Coath and A. Scherstén for assistance in the Bristol laboratory, and T. Elliot for comments on an earlier draft. The manuscript benefited from reviews by J. Valley and U. Söderlund.

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Correspondence to A. I. S. Kemp.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

Contains a summary of the rock samples used in this study, including their emplacement or stratigraphic ages, precise locations and lithology. (DOC 43 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

Presents ion microprobe U-Th-Pb isotope data for the detrital (sedimentary rock-hosted) and inherited (granite-hosted) zircons analysed in this study. (DOC 948 kb)

Supplementary Table 3

Gives a summary of the oxygen isotope data for detrital and inherited zircons, as determined by ion microprobe. All data are fractionation-corrected. (DOC 1665 kb)

Supplementary Table 4

Presents all in situ Lu-Hf isotope data, together with the zircon crystallisation age and calculated epsilon Hf values and depleted mantle model ages. (DOC 384 kb)

Supplementary Methods

Describes the analytical techniques employed for the acquisition of in situ U-Th-Pb isotope data, the oxygen isotope data, and the Lu-Hf isotope data from zircons. It includes Supplementary Figure 1, which demonstrates the veracity of the Yb interference correction for Hf isotope analysis and Supplementary Figure 5, which tabulates standard zircon Hf isotope data. (DOC 180 kb)

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Kemp, A., Hawkesworth, C., Paterson, B. et al. Episodic growth of the Gondwana supercontinent from hafnium and oxygen isotopes in zircon. Nature 439, 580–583 (2006).

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