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Concept: Sedimentary rock


New ages for flowstone, sediments and fossil bones from the Dinaledi Chamber are presented. We combined optically stimulated luminescence dating of sediments with U-Th and palaeomagnetic analyses of flowstones to establish that all sediments containing Homo naledi fossils can be allocated to a single stratigraphic entity (sub-unit 3b), interpreted to be deposited between 236 ka and 414 ka. This result has been confirmed independently by dating three H. naledi teeth with combined U-series and electron spin resonance (US-ESR) dating. Two dating scenarios for the fossils were tested by varying the assumed levels of (222)Rn loss in the encasing sediments: a maximum age scenario provides an average age for the two least altered fossil teeth of 253 +82/-70 ka, whilst a minimum age scenario yields an average age of 200 +70/-61 ka. We consider the maximum age scenario to more closely reflect conditions in the cave, and therefore, the true age of the fossils. By combining the US-ESR maximum age estimate obtained from the teeth, with the U-Th age for the oldest flowstone overlying Homo naledi fossils, we have constrained the depositional age of Homo naledi to a period between 236 ka and 335 ka. These age results demonstrate that a morphologically primitive hominin, Homo naledi, survived into the later parts of the Pleistocene in Africa, and indicate a much younger age for the Homo naledi fossils than have previously been hypothesized based on their morphology.

Concepts: Electron, Spin, Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Geology, Fossil, Paleontology, Geologic time scale


Although it is not known when or where life on Earth began, some of the earliest habitable environments may have been submarine-hydrothermal vents. Here we describe putative fossilized microorganisms that are at least 3,770 million and possibly 4,280 million years old in ferruginous sedimentary rocks, interpreted as seafloor-hydrothermal vent-related precipitates, from the Nuvvuagittuq belt in Quebec, Canada. These structures occur as micrometre-scale haematite tubes and filaments with morphologies and mineral assemblages similar to those of filamentous microorganisms from modern hydrothermal vent precipitates and analogous microfossils in younger rocks. The Nuvvuagittuq rocks contain isotopically light carbon in carbonate and carbonaceous material, which occurs as graphitic inclusions in diagenetic carbonate rosettes, apatite blades intergrown among carbonate rosettes and magnetite-haematite granules, and is associated with carbonate in direct contact with the putative microfossils. Collectively, these observations are consistent with an oxidized biomass and provide evidence for biological activity in submarine-hydrothermal environments more than 3,770 million years ago.

Concepts: Water, Sedimentary rock, Mineral, Rock, Geology, Hydrothermal vent, Fossil, Metamorphic rock


Preservation of soft-bodied organisms is exceedingly rare in the fossil record. One way that such fossils are preserved is as carbonaceous compressions in fined-grained marine sedimentary rocks. These deposits of exceptional preservation are known as Burgess Shale-type (BST) deposits. During the Cambrian Period, BST deposits are more common and provide a crucial view of early animal evolution. The earliest definitive fossil evidence for macroscopic animal-grade organisms is found in the preceding Ediacaran Period. BST deposits from the Ediacaran are rarer and lack conclusive evidence for animals. Here we report the discovery of a new Ediacaran BST deposit with exceptional preservation of non-mineralizing macro-organisms in thinly bedded black shale from Zavkhan Province, western Mongolia. This fossil assemblage, here named the Zuun-Arts biota, currently consists of two new species of probable macroscopic multicellular benthic algae. One species, Chinggiskhaania bifurcata n. gen., n. sp., dominates the biota. The other species, Zuunartsphyton delicatum n. gen., n. sp., is known from three specimens. SEM-EDS analysis shows that the fossils are composed of aluminosilicate clay minerals and some carbon, a composition comparable to fossils from the Cambrian Burgess Shale biota. This discovery opens a new window through which to view late Precambrian life.

Concepts: Evolution, Animal, Sedimentary rock, Geology, Fossil, Paleontology, Cambrian, Burgess Shale


We describe the physical context of the Dinaledi Chamber within the Rising Star cave, South Africa, which contains the fossils of Homo naledi. Approximately 1550 specimens of hominin remains have been recovered from at least 15 individuals, representing a small portion of the total fossil content. Macro-vertebrate fossils are exclusively H. naledi, and occur within clay-rich sediments derived from in situ weathering, and exogenous clay and silt, which entered the chamber through fractures that prevented passage of coarser-grained material. The chamber was always in the dark zone, and not accessible to non-hominins. Bone taphonomy indicates that hominin individuals reached the chamber complete, with disarticulation occurring during/after deposition. Hominins accumulated over time as older laminated mudstone units and sediment along the cave floor were eroded. Preliminary evidence is consistent with deliberate body disposal in a single location, by a hominin species other than Homo sapiens, at an as-yet unknown date.

Concepts: Human, Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Erosion, Geology, Fossil, Silt, Taphonomy


Biological activity is a major factor in Earth’s chemical cycles, including facilitating CO2 sequestration and providing climate feedbacks. Thus a key question in Earth’s evolution is when did life arise and impact hydrosphere-atmosphere-lithosphere chemical cycles? Until now, evidence for the oldest life on Earth focused on debated stable isotopic signatures of 3,800-3,700 million year (Myr)-old metamorphosed sedimentary rocks and minerals from the Isua supracrustal belt (ISB), southwest Greenland. Here we report evidence for ancient life from a newly exposed outcrop of 3,700-Myr-old metacarbonate rocks in the ISB that contain 1-4-cm-high stromatolites-macroscopically layered structures produced by microbial communities. The ISB stromatolites grew in a shallow marine environment, as indicated by seawater-like rare-earth element plus yttrium trace element signatures of the metacarbonates, and by interlayered detrital sedimentary rocks with cross-lamination and storm-wave generated breccias. The ISB stromatolites predate by 220 Myr the previous most convincing and generally accepted multidisciplinary evidence for oldest life remains in the 3,480-Myr-old Dresser Formation of the Pilbara Craton, Australia. The presence of the ISB stromatolites demonstrates the establishment of shallow marine carbonate production with biotic CO2 sequestration by 3,700 million years ago (Ma), near the start of Earth’s sedimentary record. A sophistication of life by 3,700 Ma is in accord with genetic molecular clock studies placing life’s origin in the Hadean eon (>4,000 Ma).

Concepts: Evolution, Life, Water, Sedimentary rock, Igneous rock, Mineral, Rock, Metamorphic rock


Tridymite, a low-pressure, high-temperature (>870 °C) SiO2 polymorph, was detected in a drill sample of laminated mudstone (Buckskin) at Marias Pass in Gale crater, Mars, by the Chemistry and Mineralogy X-ray diffraction instrument onboard the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity The tridymitic mudstone has ∼40 wt.% crystalline and ∼60 wt.% X-ray amorphous material and a bulk composition with ∼74 wt.% SiO2 (Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer analysis). Plagioclase (∼17 wt.% of bulk sample), tridymite (∼14 wt.%), sanidine (∼3 wt.%), cation-deficient magnetite (∼3 wt.%), cristobalite (∼2 wt.%), and anhydrite (∼1 wt.%) are the mudstone crystalline minerals. Amorphous material is silica-rich (∼39 wt.% opal-A and/or high-SiO2 glass and opal-CT), volatile-bearing (16 wt.% mixed cation sulfates, phosphates, and chlorides-perchlorates-chlorates), and has minor TiO2 and Fe2O3T oxides (∼5 wt.%). Rietveld refinement yielded a monoclinic structural model for a well-crystalline tridymite, consistent with high formation temperatures. Terrestrial tridymite is commonly associated with silicic volcanism, and detritus from such volcanism in a “Lake Gale” catchment environment can account for Buckskin’s tridymite, cristobalite, feldspar, and any residual high-SiO2 glass. These cogenetic detrital phases are possibly sourced from the Gale crater wall/rim/central peak. Opaline silica could form during diagenesis from high-SiO2 glass, as amorphous precipitated silica, or as a residue of acidic leaching in the sediment source region or at Marias Pass. The amorphous mixed-cation salts and oxides and possibly the crystalline magnetite (otherwise detrital) are primary precipitates and/or their diagenesis products derived from multiple infiltrations of aqueous solutions having variable compositions, temperatures, and acidities. Anhydrite is post lithification fracture/vein fill.

Concepts: Crystallography, Chemistry, Sedimentary rock, Mineral, Solid, Quartz, Silicon dioxide, Amorphous solid


Large Hesperian-aged (~3.7 Ga) layered deposits of sulfate-rich sediments in the equatorial regions of Mars have been suggested to be evidence for ephemeral playa environments. But early Mars may not have been warm enough to support conditions similar to what occurs in arid environments on Earth. Instead cold, icy environments may have been widespread. Under cryogenic conditions sulfate formation might be blocked, since kinetics of silicate weathering are typically strongly retarded at temperatures well below 0 °C. But cryo-concentration of acidic solutions may counteract the slow kinetics. Here we show that cryo-concentrated acidic brines rapidly chemically weather olivine minerals and form sulfate minerals at temperatures as low as -60 °C. These experimental results demonstrate the viability of sulfate formation under current Martian conditions, even in the polar regions. An ice-hosted sedimentation and weathering model may provide a compelling description of the origin of large Hesperian-aged layered sulfate deposits on Mars.

Concepts: Oxygen, Water, Sedimentary rock, Mineral, Sulfur, Salt, Silicate minerals, Weathering


Carbonaceous asteroids may have been the precursors to the terrestrial planets, yet despite their importance, numerous attempts to model their early solar system geological history have not converged on a solution. The assumption has been that hydrothermal alteration was occurring in rocky asteroids with material properties similar to meteorites. However, these bodies would have accreted as a high-porosity aggregate of igneous clasts (chondrules) and fine-grained primordial dust, with ice filling much of the pore space. Short-lived radionuclides melted the ice, and aqueous alteration of anhydrous minerals followed. However, at the moment when the ice melted, no geological process had acted to lithify this material. It would have been a mud, rather than a rock. We tested the effect of removing the assumption of lithification. We find that if the body accretes unsorted chondrules, then large-scale mud convection is capable of producing a size-sorted chondrule population (if the body accretes an aerodynamically sorted chondrule population, then no further sorting occurs). Mud convection both moderates internal temperature and reduces variation in temperature throughout the object. As the system is thoroughly mixed, soluble elements are not fractionated, preserving primitive chemistry. Isotopic and redox heterogeneity in secondary phases over short length scales is expected, as individual particles experience a range of temperature and water-rock histories until they are brought together in their final configuration at the end of convection. These results are consistent with observations from aqueously altered meteorites (CI and CM chondrites) and spectra of primitive asteroids. The “mudball” model appears to be a general solution: Bodies spanning a ×1000 mass range show similar behavior.

Concepts: Chondrite, Carbonaceous chondrite, Earth, Chemistry, Sedimentary rock, Solar System, Planet, Mars


Ooids are typically spherical sediment grains characterised by concentric layers encapsulating a core. There is no universally accepted explanation for ooid genesis, though factors such as agitation, abiotic and/or microbial mineralisation and size limitation have been variously invoked. Here we examine the possible influence of microbial organomineralisation on the formation of some naturally occurring ooids. We develop a mathematical model for ooid growth, inspired by work on avascular brain tumours, that assumes mineralisation in a biofilm to form a central core which then nucleates the progressive growth of concentric laminations. The model predicts a limiting size with the sequential width variation of growth rings comparing favourably with those observed in experimentally grown ooids generated from biomicrospheres. In reality, this model pattern may be complicated during growth by syngenetic aggrading neomorphism of the unstable mineral phase, followed by diagenetic recrystallisation that further complicates the structure. Our model provides a potential key to understanding the genetic archive preserved in the internal structures of some ooids.

Concepts: Bacteria, Mathematics, Structure, Brain tumor, Sedimentary rock, Das Model, Limestone, Oolite


Sea urchins are dominant members of rocky temperate reefs around the world. They often occur in cavities within the rock, and fit so tightly, it is natural to assume they sculpted these “pits.” However, there are no experimental data demonstrating they bore pits. If they do, what are the rates and consequences of bioerosion to nearshore systems? We sampled purple sea urchins, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus, from sites with four rock types, three sedimentary (two sandstones and one mudstone) and one metamorphic (granite). A year-long experiment showed urchins excavated depressions on sedimentary rocks in just months. The rate of pit formation varied with rock type and ranged from <5 yr for medium-grain sandstone to >100 yr for granite. In the field, there were differences in pit size and shapes of the urchins (height:diameter ratio). The pits were shallow and urchins flatter at the granite site, and the pits were deeper and urchins taller at the sedimentary sites. Although overall pit sizes were larger on mudstone than on sandstone, urchin size accounted for this difference. A second, short-term experiment, showed the primary mechanism for bioerosion was ingestion of the substratum. This experiment eliminated potential confounding factors of the year-long experiment and yielded higher bioerosion rates. Given the high densities of urchins, large amounts of rock can be converted to sediment over short time periods. Urchins on sandstone can excavate as much as 11.4 kg m-2 yr-1. On a broader geographic scale, sediment production can exceed 100 t ha-1 yr-1, and across their range, their combined bioerosion is comparable to the sediment load of many rivers. The phase shift between urchin barrens and kelp bed habitats in the North Pacific is controlled by the trophic cascade of sea otters. By limiting urchin populations, these apex predators also may indirectly control a substantial component of coastal rates of bioerosion.

Concepts: Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Igneous rock, Rock, Petrology, Sea urchin, Metamorphic rock, Shale