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Young poorly crystalline graphite in the >3.8-Gyr-old Nuvvuagittuq banded iron formation


Carbonaceous material present in ancient rocks can be used as an indicator of life during the time the rocks were formed. In particular, evidence for the existence of life more than 3,800 million years ago might come from mineral associations between apatite and graphite in rocks from southern West Greenland1,2,3,4,5,6,7. However, this interpretation is partly based on the assumption that the graphite was formed at the same time as the host rocks, an assumption that has been difficult to prove2,3,4,5,6,7. Here we investigate the origins of poorly crystalline graphite associated with apatite in metamorphosed banded iron formations from northern Canada that are 3,750 to 4,280 million years old8,9,10,11. We measured average δ13Cgraphite values of −22.8±1.9‰ (1σ), similar to values from West Greenland sedimentary rocks of comparable age1,3,5,6,7,12,13,14, and that point to a biological source for this carbon. Our microscopic and spectroscopic analyses suggest, however, that the graphite experienced much lower temperatures than the host rocks during metamorphism. We conclude that the poorly crystalline graphite in these rocks was deposited by fluids after peak metamorphism of the banded iron formations. We suggest that the occurrence of carbonaceous material with low δ13C values in Eoarchaean rocks cannot be used to indicate the presence of a microbial biosphere on the earliest Earth unless the syngeneity of the carbonaceous material in the host rock can be confirmed.

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Figure 1: Transmitted light images of two thin sections of NSB BIFs.
Figure 2: Raman microspectroscopic and secondary electron images of apatite associated with PCG.
Figure 3: Microscopic and compositional data of PCG and associated minerals.


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We thank the municipality of Inukjuak and the Pituvik Landholding Corporation for permission to work on their territory and M. Carroll for his support. We acknowledge funding from the NASA Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program (Grant No. NNX08AO16G), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA04CC09A), the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Carnegie of Canada, the Naval Research Laboratory, the NRC Research Associateship Program, Boston College, and the FQRNT. Some data was acquired at beamline at the ALS, which is supported by the Director of the Office of Science, Department of Energy (Contract No. DEAC0205CH11231).

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The research was spearheaded by D.P. Correlated micro-analyses were performed by D.P. and B.T.D. The manuscript was written by D.P. and B.T.D. with important contributions from all co-authors.

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Correspondence to D. Papineau.

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Papineau, D., De Gregorio, B., Cody, G. et al. Young poorly crystalline graphite in the >3.8-Gyr-old Nuvvuagittuq banded iron formation. Nature Geosci 4, 376–379 (2011).

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