Abstract

The evidence for macroscopic life during the Palaeoproterozoic era (2.5–1.6 Gyr ago) is controversial1,2,3,4,5. Except for the nearly 2-Gyr–old coil-shaped fossil Grypania spiralis6,7, which may have been eukaryotic, evidence for morphological and taxonomic biodiversification of macroorganisms only occurs towards the beginning of the Mesoproterozoic era (1.6–1.0 Gyr)8. Here we report the discovery of centimetre-sized structures from the 2.1-Gyr-old black shales of the Palaeoproterozoic Francevillian B Formation in Gabon, which we interpret as highly organized and spatially discrete populations of colonial organisms. The structures are up to 12 cm in size and have characteristic shapes, with a simple but distinct ground pattern of flexible sheets and, usually, a permeating radial fabric. Geochemical analyses suggest that the sediments were deposited under an oxygenated water column. Carbon and sulphur isotopic data indicate that the structures were distinct biogenic objects, fossilized by pyritization early in the formation of the rock. The growth patterns deduced from the fossil morphologies suggest that the organisms showed cell-to-cell signalling and coordinated responses, as is commonly associated with multicellular organization9. The Gabon fossils, occurring after the 2.45–2.32-Gyr increase in atmospheric oxygen concentration10, may be seen as ancient representatives of multicellular life, which expanded so rapidly 1.5 Gyr later, in the Cambrian explosion.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Ministry of Mines, Oil, Energy and Hydraulic Resources and the General Direction of Mines and Geology of Gabon for collaboration and assistance, and the French Embassy at Libreville and the French Ministry for Foreign Affairs for support. We thank F. Mayaga-Mikolo, D. Beaufort, B. Cost, D. Thieblemont, F. Pambo and H. Sigmund for discussions. For assistance in Gabon and France, we acknowledge S. Accolas, T. Bonifait, B. Braconnier, N. Dauger, F. Duru, D. Fabry, F. Haessler, M. Jouve, G. Letort, D. Paquet, J.-C. Parneix, D. Proust, M. Stampanoni and X. Valentin. We also acknowledge the Institut Français du Pétrole, the Swiss Light Source (TOMCAT beamline) at the Paul Scherrer Institute, and the Centre de Microtomographie at the University of Poitiers (CdMT). Nordsim is operated under an agreement of the Joint Committee of the Nordic Research Councils for Natural Sciences (NOS-N), with further funding from the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation; this is Nordsim contribution 256. Research was supported by the French CNRS-INSU, the Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières (BRGM), the Danish National Research Foundation and the Swedish Research Council.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Laboratoire HYDRASA, UMR 6269 CNRS-INSU, Université de Poitiers, 86022 Poitiers, France

    • Abderrazak El Albani
    • , Claude Fontaine
    • , Frantz Ossa Ossa
    • , Paul Sardini
    •  & Alain Meunier
  2. Department of Palaeozoology, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Box 50007, SE-104 05 Stockholm, Sweden

    • Stefan Bengtson
    •  & Emma U. Hammarlund
  3. Nordic Center for Earth Evolution, DK-5230 Odense M, Denmark

    • Donald E. Canfield
    •  & Emma U. Hammarlund
  4. Department of Geological Sciences, University of Manitoba, Manitoba, R3T 2N2 Canada

    • Andrey Bekker
  5. Département Géosciences, Centre de Microtomographie, Université de Poitiers, 86022 Poitiers, France

    • Roberto Macchiarelli
  6. Département de Préhistoire, UMR 7194 CNRS, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, 75005, France

    • Roberto Macchiarelli
  7. Société Etudes Recherches Matériaux, CRI Biopole, 86000 Poitiers, France

    • Arnaud Mazurier
  8. Department of Geological Sciences, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

    • Emma U. Hammarlund
  9. Département Géosciences, UMR 6118, Université de Rennes, 35042 Rennes, France

    • Philippe Boulvais
    •  & Anne-Catherine Pierson-Wickmann
  10. Bureau de Recherches Géologiques et Minières, 45060 Orléans, France

    • Jean-Jacques Dupuy
  11. GeoZentrum Nordbayern, Universität Erlangen, Fachgruppe Paläoumwelt, D 91054 Erlangen, Germany

    • Franz T. Fürsich
  12. Laboratoire d'Hydrologie et de Géochimie de Strasbourg, UMR 7517 CNRS, 67084 Strasbourg, France

    • François Gauthier-Lafaye
  13. Département Histoire de la Terre, UMR 7207 CNRS, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, 75005, France

    • Philippe Janvier
  14. Département de Géologie, Unité de Recherche Paléobotanique-Paléopalynologie-Micropaléontologie, Université de Liège, Sart-Tilman Liège 4000, Belgium

    • Emmanuelle Javaux
  15. Laboratoire Géosystèmes, FRE 3298 CNRS, Université Lille 1, 59655 Villeneuve d'Ascq, France

    • Armelle Riboulleau
    •  & Daniel Vachard
  16. Laboratory for Isotope Geology, Swedish Museum of Natural History, Box 50007, SE-104 05 Stockholm, Sweden

    • Martin Whitehouse

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Contributions

A.E.A. conceived and headed the project. A.E.A., S.B., D.E.C., E.H., A.B., R.M., J.-J.D., P.J. and A.Meunier designed research. A.E.A., A.Mazurier, E.H., F.O.O. and P.S. did field research. A.E.A. and F.O.O. analysed sedimentology. A.E.A., S.B., F.T.F., P.S. and D.V. analysed morphology. A.E.A., S.B., R.M. and A.Mazurier carried out microtomographic analyses. E.J. analysed palynology. A.E.A., C.F., F.O.O. and A.Meunier analysed mineralogy. S.B., D.E.C., A.B., E.H., P.B., A.-C.P.-W., A.R. and M.W. carried out isotope and geochemical analyses. F.G.-L. provided geological samples. A.E.A., S.B., D.E.C., A.B., R.M., A.Mazurier, E.H., P.B., C.F., F.T.F., F.G.-L., P.J., E.J., F.O.O., A.-C.P.-W., A.R., D.V., M.W. and A.Meunier analysed data. A.E.A., S.B., D.E.C., R.M. and E.H. wrote the main part of the manuscript. A.B., A.Mazurier, P.B., J.-J.D., C.F., F.T.F., F.G.-L., P.J., E.J., A.-C.P.-W., A.R., D.V., M.W. and A.Meunier provided critical input to the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Abderrazak El Albani.

The repository of the fossils is the Department of Geosciences, University of Poitiers, France.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Information and Data 1-6, Supplementary Figures S1-S18 with legends, Supplementary Tables S1-S5 and References.

Videos

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Movie 1

    This file contains an animation of G-FB2-f mst1.1 microtomographic reconstruction showing inner structures through transparency.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Movie 2

    This file contains an animation of G-FB2-f mst2.1 microtomographic reconstruction showing inner structures through transparency.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Movie 3

    This file contains an animation of G-FB2-f mst3.1 microtomographic reconstruction showing inner structures through transparency.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Movie 4

    This file contains an animation of G-FB2-f mst4.1 microtomographic reconstruction showing inner structures through transparency.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09166

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