Last updated
4567.3 ± 0.16 – 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 GSSA ratifiedOctober 5, 2022 [1]
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
Upper GSSP ratified1992

The Precambrian ( /priˈkæmbri.ən,-ˈkm-/ pree-KAM-bree-ən, -KAYM-; [2] 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, [3] 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 little 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. [4] 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. [4] [5] [6]

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. [7] [8]

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 [9] and the International Commission on Stratigraphy regard the term as informal. [10] 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, [11] [12] but this is also an informal term, not defined by the ICS in its chronostratigraphic guide. [13]

Eozoic (from eo- "earliest") was a synonym for pre-Cambrian, [14] [15] or more specifically Archean . [16]

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. [17] 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. [18] [19] [20] [21] 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. [22] However, the interpretation of ancient fossils is problematic, and "... some definitions of multicellularity encompass everything from simple bacterial colonies to badgers." [23] Other possible early complex multicellular organisms include a possible 2450 Ma red alga from the Kola Peninsula, [24] 1650 Ma carbonaceous biosignatures in north China, [25] the 1600 Ma Rafatazmia , [26] and a possible 1047 Ma Bangiomorpha red alga from the Canadian Arctic. [27] The earliest fossils widely accepted as complex multicellular organisms date from the Ediacaran Period. [28] [29] 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. [30] [31]

While land seems to have been devoid of plants and animals, cyanobacteria and other microbes formed prokaryotic mats that covered terrestrial areas. [32]

Tracks from an animal with leg-like appendages have been found in what was mud 551 million years ago. [33] [34]

Emergence of life

The RNA World hypothesis assumes that RNA evolved before coded proteins and DNA genomes. [35] During the Hadean Eon (4,567–4,031 Ma) abundant geothermal microenvironments were present that may have had the potential to support the synthesis and replication of RNA and thus possibly the evolution of a primitive life form. [36] It was shown that porous rock systems comprising heated air-water interfaces could allow ribozyme catalyzed RNA replication of sense and antisense strands that could be followed by strand-dissociation, thus enabling combined synthesis, release and folding of active ribozymes. [36] This primitive RNA replicative system also may have been able to undergo template strand switching during replication (genetic recombination) as is known to occur during the RNA replication of extant coronaviruses. [37]

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".[ citation needed ]

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. [38]

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. [39] The Precambrian is divided into three eons: the Hadean (4567.34031 Ma), Archean (4031-2500 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: [42]

  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 banded iron formation until the first continental red beds.
  5. Proterozoic: a period of modern plate tectonics until the first animals.

Precambrian supercontinents

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. [43] [44] 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. [45]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geologic time scale</span> 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 standardised 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Neoproterozoic</span> 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 first of three geological eras of the Phanerozoic Eon. Beginning 538.8 million years ago (Ma), it succeeds the Neoproterozoic and ends 251.9 Ma at the start of the Mesozoic Era. The Paleozoic is subdivided into six geologic periods :

Rodinia was a Mesoproterozoic and Neoproterozoic supercontinent that assembled 1.26–0.90 billion years ago (Ga) and broke up 750–633 million years ago (Ma). 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.

The Hadean is the first and oldest of the four known geologic eons of Earth's history, starting with the planet's formation about 4.54 Bya, now defined as Mya set by the age of the oldest solid material in the Solar System found in some meteorites about 4.567 billion years old. The supposed interplanetary collision that created the Moon occurred early in this eon. The Hadean ended 4.031 billion years ago and was succeeded by the Archean eon, with the Late Heavy Bombardment hypothesized to have occurred at the Hadean-Archean boundary.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Proterozoic</span> Geologic eon, 2500–539 million years ago

The Proterozoic is the third of the four geologic eons of Earth's history, spanning the time interval from 2500 to 538.8 Mya, the longest eon of the Earth's geologic time scale. It is preceded by the Archean and followed by the Phanerozoic, and is the most recent part of the Precambrian "supereon".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Archean</span> Geologic eon, 4031–2500 million years ago

The Archean Eon, in older sources sometimes called the Archaeozoic, is the second of the four geologic eons of Earth's history, preceded by the Hadean Eon and followed by the Proterozoic. The Archean represents the time period from 4,031 to 2,500 Ma. The Late Heavy Bombardment is hypothesized to overlap with the beginning of the Archean. The Huronian glaciation occurred at the end of the eon.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mesoproterozoic</span> Second era of the Proterozoic Eon

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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eoarchean</span> First era of the Archean Eon

The Eoarchean is the first era of the Archean Eon of the geologic record. It spans 431 million years, from the end of the Hadean Eon 4031 Mya to the start of the Paleoarchean Era 3600 Mya. The beginnings of life on Earth have been dated to this era and evidence of archaea and cyanobacteria date to 3500 Mya, comparatively shortly after the Eoarchean. At that time, the atmosphere was without oxygen and the pressure values ranged from 10 to 100 bar.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of Earth</span> 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">North China Craton</span> 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.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Geological history of Earth</span> The sequence of major geological events in Earths past

The geological history of the Earth follows the major geological events in Earth's past based on the geological time scale, a system of chronological measurement based on the study of the planet's rock layers (stratigraphy). Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago by accretion from the solar nebula, a disk-shaped mass of dust and gas left over from the formation of the Sun, which also created the rest of the Solar System.

A paleoatmosphere is an atmosphere, particularly that of Earth, at some unspecified time in the geological past.

In stratigraphy, paleontology, geology, and geobiology, an erathem is the total stratigraphic unit deposited during a certain corresponding span of time during an era in the geologic timescale.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Laurentia</span> Craton forming the geological core of North America

Laurentia or the North American Craton is a large continental craton that forms the ancient geological core of North America. Many times in its past, Laurentia has been a separate continent, as it is now in the form of North America, although originally it also included the cratonic areas of Greenland and also the northwestern part of Scotland, known as the Hebridean Terrane. During other times in its past, Laurentia has been part of larger continents and supercontinents and consists of many smaller terranes assembled on a network of early Proterozoic orogenic belts. Small microcontinents and oceanic islands collided with and sutured onto the ever-growing Laurentia, and together formed the stable Precambrian craton seen today.

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.

The Boring Billion, otherwise known as the Mid Proterozoic and Earth's Middle Ages, is the time period between 1.8 and 0.8 billion years ago (Ga) spanning the middle Proterozoic eon, characterized by more or less tectonic stability, climatic stasis, and slow biological evolution. It is bordered by two different oxygenation and glacial events, but the Boring Billion itself had very low oxygen levels and no evidence of glaciation.

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).

The geology of Argentina includes ancient Precambrian basement rock affected by the Grenville orogeny, sediment filled basins from the Mesozoic and Cenozoic as well as newly uplifted areas in the Andes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Eastern Block of the North China Craton</span>

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.


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