Last updated
~4600 – 538.8 ± 0.2 Ma
Proposed subdivisionsSee Proposed Precambrian timeline
Usage information
Celestial body Earth
Regional usageGlobal (ICS)
Time scale(s) usedICS Time Scale
Chronological unit Supereon
Stratigraphic unit Supereonthem
Time span formalityInformal
Lower boundary definitionFormation of the Earth
Lower boundary GSSPN/A
GSSP ratifiedN/A
Upper boundary definitionAppearance of the Ichnofossil Treptichnus pedum
Upper boundary GSSP Fortune Head section, Newfoundland, Canada
47°04′34″N55°49′52″W / 47.0762°N 55.8310°W / 47.0762; -55.8310
GSSP ratified1992

The Precambrian (or Pre-Cambrian, sometimes abbreviated pꞒ, or Cryptozoic) is the earliest part of Earth's history, set before the current Phanerozoic Eon. The Precambrian is so named because it preceded the Cambrian, the first period of the Phanerozoic Eon, which is named after Cambria, the Latinised name for Wales, where rocks from this age were first studied. The Precambrian accounts for 88% of the Earth's geologic time.


The Precambrian is an informal unit of geologic time, [1] subdivided into three eons (Hadean, Archean, Proterozoic) of the geologic time scale. It spans from the formation of Earth about 4.6 billion years ago (Ga) to the beginning of the Cambrian Period, about 538.8 million years ago (Ma), when hard-shelled creatures first appeared in abundance.


Relatively a small amount of information is known about the Precambrian, despite it making up roughly seven-eighths of the Earth's history, and what is known has largely been discovered from the 1960s onwards. The Precambrian fossil record is poorer than that of the succeeding Phanerozoic, and fossils from the Precambrian (e.g. stromatolites) are of limited biostratigraphic use. [2] This is because many Precambrian rocks have been heavily metamorphosed, obscuring their origins, while others have been destroyed by erosion, or remain deeply buried beneath Phanerozoic strata. [2] [3] [4]

It is thought that the Earth coalesced from material in orbit around the Sun at roughly 4,543 Ma, and may have been struck by another planet called Theia shortly after it formed, splitting off material that formed the Moon (see Giant impact hypothesis). A stable crust was apparently in place by 4,433 Ma, since zircon crystals from Western Australia have been dated at 4,404 ± 8 Ma. [5] [6]

The term "Precambrian" is used by geologists and paleontologists for general discussions not requiring a more specific eon name. However, both the United States Geological Survey [7] and the International Commission on Stratigraphy regard the term as informal. [8] Because the span of time falling under the Precambrian consists of three eons (the Hadean, the Archean, and the Proterozoic), it is sometimes described as a supereon, [9] [10] but this is also an informal term, not defined by the ICS in its chronostratigraphic guide. [11]

Eozoic (from eo- “earliest”) was a synonym for pre-Cambrian, [12] [13] or more specifically Archean . [14]

Life forms

A specific date for the origin of life has not been determined. Carbon found in 3.8 billion-year-old rocks (Archean Eon) from islands off western Greenland may be of organic origin. Well-preserved microscopic fossils of bacteria older than 3.46 billion years have been found in Western Australia. [15] Probable fossils 100 million years older have been found in the same area. However, there is evidence that life could have evolved over 4.280 billion years ago. [16] [17] [18] [19] There is a fairly solid record of bacterial life throughout the remainder (Proterozoic Eon) of the Precambrian.

Complex multicellular organisms may have appeared as early as 2100 Ma. [20] However, the interpretation of ancient fossils is problematic, and "... some definitions of multicellularity encompass everything from simple bacterial colonies to badgers." [21] Other possible early complex multicellular organisms include a possible 2450 Ma red alga from the Kola Peninsula, [22] 1650 Ma carbonaceous biosignatures in north China, [23] the 1600 Ma Rafatazmia , [24] and a possible 1047 Ma Bangiomorpha red alga from the Canadian Arctic. [25] The earliest fossils widely accepted as complex multicellular organisms date from the Ediacaran Period. [26] [27] A very diverse collection of soft-bodied forms is found in a variety of locations worldwide and date to between 635 and 542 Ma. These are referred to as Ediacaran or Vendian biota. Hard-shelled creatures appeared toward the end of that time span, marking the beginning of the Phanerozoic Eon. By the middle of the following Cambrian Period, a very diverse fauna is recorded in the Burgess Shale, including some which may represent stem groups of modern taxa. The increase in diversity of lifeforms during the early Cambrian is called the Cambrian explosion of life. [28] [29]

While land seems to have been devoid of plants and animals, cyanobacteria and other microbes formed prokaryotic mats that covered terrestrial areas. [30]

Tracks from an animal with leg-like appendages have been found in what was mud 551 million years ago. [31] [32]

Planetary environment and the oxygen catastrophe

Weathered Precambrian pillow lava in the Temagami Greenstone Belt of the Canadian Shield Temagami greenstone belt pillow lava.jpg
Weathered Precambrian pillow lava in the Temagami Greenstone Belt of the Canadian Shield

Evidence of the details of plate motions and other tectonic activity in the Precambrian has been poorly preserved. It is generally believed that small proto-continents existed before 4280 Ma, and that most of the Earth's landmasses collected into a single supercontinent around 1130 Ma. The supercontinent, known as Rodinia, broke up around 750 Ma. A number of glacial periods have been identified going as far back as the Huronian epoch, roughly 2400–2100 Ma. One of the best studied is the Sturtian-Varangian glaciation, around 850–635 Ma, which may have brought glacial conditions all the way to the equator, resulting in a "Snowball Earth".

The atmosphere of the early Earth is not well understood. Most geologists believe it was composed primarily of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other relatively inert gases, and was lacking in free oxygen. There is, however, evidence that an oxygen-rich atmosphere existed since the early Archean. [33]

At present, it is still believed that molecular oxygen was not a significant fraction of Earth's atmosphere until after photosynthetic life forms evolved and began to produce it in large quantities as a byproduct of their metabolism. This radical shift from a chemically inert to an oxidizing atmosphere caused an ecological crisis, sometimes called the oxygen catastrophe. At first, oxygen would have quickly combined with other elements in Earth's crust, primarily iron, removing it from the atmosphere. After the supply of oxidizable surfaces ran out, oxygen would have begun to accumulate in the atmosphere, and the modern high-oxygen atmosphere would have developed. Evidence for this lies in older rocks that contain massive banded iron formations that were laid down as iron oxides.


A terminology has evolved covering the early years of the Earth's existence, as radiometric dating has allowed absolute dates to be assigned to specific formations and features. [34] The Precambrian is divided into three eons: the Hadean (46004000 Ma), Archean (4000-2500 Ma) and Proterozoic (2500-538.8 Ma). See Timetable of the Precambrian.

It has been proposed that the Precambrian should be divided into eons and eras that reflect stages of planetary evolution, rather than the current scheme based upon numerical ages. Such a system could rely on events in the stratigraphic record and be demarcated by GSSPs. The Precambrian could be divided into five "natural" eons, characterized as follows: [37]

  1. Accretion and differentiation: a period of planetary formation until giant Moon-forming impact event.
  2. Hadean: dominated by heavy bombardment from about 4.51 Ga (possibly including a Cool Early Earth period) to the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment period.
  3. Archean: a period defined by the first crustal formations (the Isua greenstone belt) until the deposition of banded iron formations due to increasing atmospheric oxygen content.
  4. Transition: a period of continued iron banded formation until the first continental red beds.
  5. Proterozoic: a period of modern plate tectonics until the first animals.

Precambrian supercontinents

Map of Kenorland supercontinent 2.5 billion years ago Kenorland.jpg
Map of Kenorland supercontinent 2.5 billion years ago
Map of Kenorland breaking up 2.3 billion years ago Kenorland breaking up.jpg
Map of Kenorland breaking up 2.3 billion years ago
The supercontinent Columbia about 1.6 billion years ago Paleoglobe NO 1590 mya-vector-colors.svg
The supercontinent Columbia about 1.6 billion years ago
Proposed reconstruction of Rodinia for 750 million years ago Rodinia reconstruction.jpg
Proposed reconstruction of Rodinia for 750 million years ago
Landmass positions near the end of the Precambrian Positions of ancient continents, 550 million years ago.jpg
Landmass positions near the end of the Precambrian

The movement of Earth's plates has caused the formation and break-up of continents over time, including occasional formation of a supercontinent containing most or all of the landmass. The earliest known supercontinent was Vaalbara. It formed from proto-continents and was a supercontinent 3.636 billion years ago. Vaalbara broke up c. 2.845–2.803 Ga ago. The supercontinent Kenorland was formed c. 2.72 Ga ago and then broke sometime after 2.45–2.1 Ga into the proto-continent cratons called Laurentia, Baltica, Yilgarn craton and Kalahari. The supercontinent Columbia, or Nuna, formed 2.1–1.8 billion years ago and broke up about 1.3–1.2 billion years ago. [38] [39] The supercontinent Rodinia is thought to have formed about 1300-900 Ma, to have embodied most or all of Earth's continents and to have broken up into eight continents around 750–600 million years ago. [40]

See also

Related Research Articles

Ediacaran Third and last period of the Neoproterozoic Era

The Ediacaran Period is a geological period that spans 96 million years from the end of the Cryogenian Period 635 million years ago (Mya), to the beginning of the Cambrian Period 538.8 Mya. It marks the end of the Proterozoic Eon, and the beginning of the Phanerozoic Eon. It is named after the Ediacara Hills of South Australia.

Geologic time scale System that relates geologic strata to time

The geologic time scale, or geological time scale, (GTS) is a representation of time based on the rock record of Earth. It is a system of chronological dating that uses chronostratigraphy and geochronology. It is used primarily by Earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships of events in geologic history. The time scale has been developed through the study of rock layers and the observation of their relationships and identifying features such as lithologies, paleomagnetic properties, and fossils. The definition of standardized international units of geologic time is the responsibility of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a constituent body of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), whose primary objective is to precisely define global chronostratigraphic units of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart (ICC) that are used to define divisions of geologic time. The chronostratigraphic divisions are in turn used to define geochronologic units.

Neoproterozoic Third and last era of the Proterozoic Eon

The Neoproterozoic Era is the unit of geologic time from 1 billion to 538.8 million years ago.

The PaleozoicEra is the earliest of three geologic eras of the Phanerozoic Eon. It is the longest of the Phanerozoic eras, lasting from 538.8 to 251.902 million years ago, and is subdivided into six geologic periods : the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian. The Paleozoic comes after the Neoproterozoic Era of the Proterozoic Eon and is followed by the Mesozoic Era.

Supercontinent Landmass comprising more than one continental core, or craton

In geology, a supercontinent is the assembly of most or all of Earth's continental blocks or cratons to form a single large landmass. However, some earth scientists use a different definition, "a grouping of formerly dispersed continents", which leaves room for interpretation and is easier to apply to Precambrian times although at least about 75% of the continental crust then in existence has been proposed as a limit to separate supercontinents from other groupings.

Rodinia Hypothetical Neoproterozoic supercontinent

Rodinia was a Neoproterozoic supercontinent that assembled 1.1–0.9 billion years ago and broke up 750–633 million years ago. Valentine & Moores 1970 were probably the first to recognise a Precambrian supercontinent, which they named 'Pangaea I'. It was renamed 'Rodinia' by McMenamin & McMenamin 1990 who also were the first to produce a reconstruction and propose a temporal framework for the supercontinent.

Hadean First eon of geological time, beginning with the formation of the Earth about 4.6 billion years ago

The Hadean is a geologic eon of Earth history preceding the Archean. It began with the formation of the Earth about 4.6 billion years ago and ended, as defined by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), 4 billion years ago. As of 2016, the ICS describes its status as "informal". The term was coined after the Greek mythical underworld Hades, by American geologist Preston Cloud, originally to label the period before the earliest-known rocks on Earth. W. Brian Harland later coined an almost synonymous term, the Priscoan Period, from priscus, the Latin word for 'ancient'. Other, older texts refer to the eon as the Pre-Archean.

Proterozoic Third eon of the geologic timescale, last eon of the Precambrian Supereon

The Proterozoic is a geological eon spanning the time interval from 2500 to 538.8 million years ago. It is the most recent part of the Precambrian "supereon." It is also the longest eon of the Earth's geologic time scale, and it is subdivided into three geologic eras : the Paleoproterozoic, Mesoproterozoic, and Neoproterozoic.

Archean Second eon of the geologic timescale

The Archean Eon is the second of four geologic eons of Earth's history, representing the time from 4,000 to 2,500 million years ago. In this time, the Earth's crust had cooled enough for continents to form and for the earliest known life to start. Life was simple throughout the Archean, mostly represented by shallow-water microbial mats called stromatolites, and the atmosphere lacked free oxygen. The Archean was preceded by the Hadean Eon and followed by the Proterozoic.

The Mesoproterozoic Era is a geologic era that occurred from 1,600 to 1,000 million years ago. The Mesoproterozoic was the first era of Earth's history for which a fairly definitive geological record survives. Continents existed during the preceding era, but little is known about them. The continental masses of the Mesoproterozoic were more or less the same ones that exist today, although their arrangement on the Earth's surface was different.

Kenorland Hypothetical Neoarchaean supercontinent from about 2.8 billion years ago

Kenorland was one of the earliest known supercontinents on Earth. It is thought to have formed during the Neoarchaean Era c. 2.72 billion years ago by the accretion of Neoarchaean cratons and the formation of new continental crust. It comprised what later became Laurentia, Baltica, Western Australia and Kalaharia.

Eoarchean First era of the Archean Eon

The Eoarchean is the first era of the Archean Eon of the geologic record for which the Earth has a solid crust. It spans 400 million years from the end of the Hadean Eon 4 billion years ago to the start of the Paleoarchean Era 3600 Mya. The beginnings of life on Earth have been dated to this era and evidence of cyanobacteria date to 3500 Mya, just outside this era. At that time, the atmosphere was without oxygen and the pressure values ranged from 10 to 100 bar.

History of Earth Development of planet Earth from its formation to the present day

The history of Earth concerns the development of planet Earth from its formation to the present day. Nearly all branches of natural science have contributed to understanding of the main events of Earth's past, characterized by constant geological change and biological evolution.

North China Craton Continental crustal block in northeast China, Inner Mongolia, the Yellow Sea, and North Korea

The North China Craton is a continental crustal block with one of Earth's most complete and complex records of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic processes. It is located in northeast China, Inner Mongolia, the Yellow Sea, and North Korea. The term craton designates this as a piece of continent that is stable, buoyant and rigid. Basic properties of the cratonic crust include being thick, relatively cold when compared to other regions, and low density. The North China Craton is an ancient craton, which experienced a long period of stability and fitted the definition of a craton well. However, the North China Craton later experienced destruction of some of its deeper parts (decratonization), which means that this piece of continent is no longer as stable.

Geological history of Earth The sequence of major geological events in Earths past

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The West African Craton (WAC) is one of the five cratons of the Precambrian basement rock of Africa that make up the African Plate, the others being the Kalahari craton, Congo craton, Saharan Metacraton and Tanzania Craton. Cratons themselves are tectonically inactive, but can occur near active margins, with the WAC extending across 14 countries in Western Africa, coming together in the late Precambrian and early Palaeozoic eras to form the African continent. It consists of two Archean centers juxtaposed against multiple Paleoproterozoic domains made of greenstone belts, sedimentary basins, regional granitoid-tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite (TTG) plutons, and large shear zones. The craton is overlain by Neoproterozoic and younger sedimentary basins. The boundaries of the WAC are predominantly defined by a combination of geophysics and surface geology, with additional constraints by the geochemistry of the region. At one time, volcanic action around the rim of the craton may have contributed to a major global warming event.

This timeline of natural history summarizes significant geological and biological events from the formation of the Earth to the arrival of modern humans. Times are listed in millions of years, or megaanni (Ma).

Tectonic evolution of the Aravalli Mountains Overview article

The Aravalli Mountain Range is a northeast-southwest trending orogenic belt in the northwest part of India and is part of the Indian Shield that was formed from a series of cratonic collisions. The Aravalli Mountains consist of the Aravalli and Delhi fold belts, and are collectively known as the Aravalli-Delhi orogenic belt. The whole mountain range is about 700 km long. Unlike the much younger Himalayan section nearby, the Aravalli Mountains are believed much older and can be traced back to the Proterozoic Eon. They are arguably the oldest geological feature on Earth. The collision between the Bundelkhand craton and the Marwar craton is believed to be the primary mechanism for the development of the mountain range.

Eastern Block of the North China Craton

The Eastern Block of the North China Craton is one of the Earth's oldest pieces of continent. It is separated from the Western Block by the Trans-North China Orogen. It is situated in northeastern China and North Korea. The Block contains rock exposures older than 2.5 billion years. It serves as an ideal place to study how the crust was formed in the past and the related tectonic settings.

South China Craton

The South China Craton or South China Block is one of the Precambrian continental blocks in China. It is traditionally divided into the Yangtze Block in the NW and the Cathaysia Block in the SE. The Jiangshan–Shaoxing Fault represents the suture boundary between the two sub-blocks. Recent study suggests that the South China Block possibly has one more sub-block which is named the Tolo Terrane. The oldest rocks in the South China Block occur within the Kongling Complex, which yields zircon U–Pb ages of 3.3–2.9 Ga.


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Further reading