Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Emergence of modern continental crust about 3 billion years ago


The continental crust is the principal record of conditions on the Earth during the past 4.4 billion years1,2. However, how the continental crust formed and evolved through time remains highly controversial3,4. In particular, the composition and thickness of juvenile continental crust are unknown. Here we show that Rb/Sr ratios can be used as a proxy for both the silica content and the thickness of the continental crust. We calculate Rb/Sr ratios of the juvenile crust for over 13,000 samples, with Nd model ages ranging from the Hadean to Phanerozoic. The ratios were calculated based on the evolution of Sr isotopes in the period between the TDM Nd model age and the crystallization of the samples analysed. We find that the juvenile crust had a low silica content and was largely mafic in composition during the first 1.5 billion years of Earth’s evolution, consistent with magmatism on a pre-plate tectonics planet. About 3 billion years ago, the Rb/Sr ratios of the juvenile continental crust increased, indicating that the newly formed crust became more silica-rich and probably thicker. This transition is in turn linked to the onset of plate tectonics5 and an increase of continental detritus into the oceans6.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Correlation between Rb/Sr and SiO2 in crustal rocks, from a compilation of 96,465 magmatic rocks.
Figure 2: Variation of Rb/Sr ratios in juvenile crust (Stage 1 in Fig. 1) as a function its formation age.
Figure 3: Correlation between Rb/Sr (and SiO2, inset) and crustal thickness in central and south western America.
Figure 4: Variation in the thickness of juvenile continental crust through time, calculated from the relationships in Figs 2 and 3.


  1. Wilde, S. A., Valley, J. W., Peck, W. H. & Graham, C. M. Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago. Nature 409, 175–178 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Kemp, A. I. S. et al. Hadean crustal evolution revisited: New constraints from Pb–Hf isotope systematics of the Jack Hills zircons. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 296, 45–56 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Hawkesworth, C. J. et al. The generation and evolution of the continental crust. J. Geol. Soc. Lond. 167, 229–248 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Arndt, N. T. Formation and evolution of the continental crust. Geochem. Perspect. 2, 405–533 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Shirey, S. B. & Richardson, S. H. Start of the Wilson cycle at 3 Ga shown by diamonds from subcontinental mantle. Science 333, 434–436 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Pons, M. L. et al. A Zn isotope perspective on the rise of continents. Geobiology 11, 201–214 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Kemp, A. I. S., Hawkesworth, C. J., Paterson, B. A. & Kinny, P. D. Episodic growth of the Gondwana supercontinent from hafnium and oxygen isotope ratios. Nature 439, 580–583 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Vervoort, J. D. & Blichert-Toft, J. Evolution of the depleted mantle: Hf isotope evidence from juvenile rocks through time. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 63, 533–566 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Flament, N., Coltice, N. & Rey, P. F. A case for late-Archaean continental emergence from thermal evolution models and hypsometry. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 275, 326–336 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Barker, F. & Arth, J. G. Generation of trondhjemitic-tonalitic liquids and Archean bimodal trondhjemite-basalt suites. Geology 4, 596–600 (1976).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Vervoort, J. D., Fisher, C. M. & Kemp, A. I. S. The myth of a highly heterogeneous Hf-Nd eoarchean mantle and large early crustal volumes. Mineral. Mag. 77, 2409 (2013).

    Google Scholar 

  12. Kelemen, P. B., Hanghøj, K. & Greene, A. R. in Treatise of Geochemistry Vol. 3 (ed Rudnick, R. L.) 593–659 (Elsevier, 2003).

    Google Scholar 

  13. Ellam, R. M. Lithospheric thickness as a control on basalt geochemistry. Geology 20, 153–156 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Thompson, A. B. & Connolly, J. A. D. Melting of the continental-crust—some thermal and petrological constraints on anatexis in continental collision zones and other tectonic settings. J. Geophys. Res. 100, 15565–15579 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. van Thienen, P., Vlaar, N. J. & van den Berg, A. P. Plate tectonics on the terrestrial planets. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 142, 61–74 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Korenaga, J. in Archean Geodynamics and Environments Vol. 164 (eds Benn, K., Mareschal, J. C. & Condie, K. C.) 7–32 (American Geophysical Union, 2006).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  17. Kamber, B. S. & Collerson, K. D. Role of ‘hidden’ deeply subducted slabs in mantle depletion. Chem. Geol. 166, 241–254 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Dhuime, B., Hawkesworth, C. J. & Cawood, P. A. When Continents Formed. Science 331, 154–155 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Arndt, N. T. & Goldstein, S. L. An open boundary between lower continental crust and mantle: Its role in crust formation and crustal recycling. Tectonophysics 161, 201–212 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Van Kranendonk, M. J. Onset of Plate Tectonics. Science 333, 413–414 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Belousova, E. A. et al. The growth of the continental crust: Constraints from zircon Hf-isotope data. Lithos 119, 457–466 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Dhuime, B., Hawkesworth, C. J., Cawood, P. A. & Storey, C. D. A change in the geodynamics of continental growth 3 billion years ago. Science 335, 1334–1336 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Valley, J. W. et al. 4.4 billion years of crustal maturation: Oxygen isotope ratios of magmatic zircon. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 150, 561–580 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Liu, X. M. & Rudnick, R. L. Constraints on continental crustal mass loss via chemical weathering using lithium and its isotopes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 20873–20880 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Lee, C. T. A. et al. Regulating continent growth and composition by chemical weathering. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 4981–4986 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Scholl, D. W. & von Huene, R. in Earth Accretionary Systems in Space and Time Vol. 318 (eds Cawood, P. A. & Kröner, A.) 105–125 (Geological Society, 2009).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Shields, G. A. A normalised seawater strontium isotope curve: Possible implications for Neoproterozoic-Cambrian weathering rates and the further oxygenation of the Earth. eEarth 2, 35–42 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Canfield, D. E., Habicht, K. S. & Thamdrup, B. The Archean sulfur cycle and the early history of atmospheric oxygen. Science 288, 658–661 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Cook, P. J. & Shergold, J. H. Phosphorus, phosphorites and skeletal evolution at the Precambrian–Cambrian boundary. Nature 308, 231–236 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Benitez-Nelson, C. R. The biogeochemical cycling of phosphorus in marine systems. Earth-Sci. Rev. 51, 109–135 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC grants NE/K008862/1 and NE/J021822/1). Thorough reviews from C-T. Lee and J. Vervoort contributed greatly to improve this manuscript. We thank P. Cawood, C. Chauvel, H. Delavault, T. Elliott and T. Prave for many discussions and their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



B.D. and C.J.H. designed the study. B.D. and A.W. processed the data and designed the figures and B.D. and C.J.H. wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bruno Dhuime.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 903 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (XLSX 3768 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (XLSX 686 kb)

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (TXT 2 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Dhuime, B., Wuestefeld, A. & Hawkesworth, C. Emergence of modern continental crust about 3 billion years ago. Nature Geosci 8, 552–555 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing