|Geologic timescale of the Precambrian|
|(millions of years ago)|
The Archean (also spelled Archaean, formerly called the Archaeozoic, also spelled Archeozoic) is a geologic eon before the Proterozoic, 2500 Ma (million years ago). Instead of being based on stratigraphy, this date is defined chronometrically. The lower boundary has not been officially recognized by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, but it is usually set to 3800 mya at the end of the Hadean eon.
At the beginning of the Archean, the Earth's heat flow was nearly three times higher than it is today, and was still twice the current level by the beginning of the Proterozoic. The extra heat may have been remnant heat from the planetary accretion, partly heat of formation of the iron core, and most likely partially caused by greater radiogenic heat production from short-lived radionuclides such as uranium-235.
The majority of Archean rocks which exist are metmorphic igneous rocks, the bulk of those being intrusive. Volcanic activity was considerably more active than today, with numerous hot spots, and rift valleys, and eruption of unusual lavas such as komatiite. Intrusive igneous rocks such as great melt sheets and voluminous plutonic masses of granite, diorite, ultramafic to mafic layered intrusions, anorthosites and monzonites known as sanukitoids predominate throughout the crystalline cratonic remnants of the Archean crust which exist today.
The Earth of the early Archean may have had a different tectonic style. Some scientists think because the Earth was hotter, that plate tectonic activity was more vigorous than it is today, resulting in a much greater rate of recycling of crustal material. This may have prevented cratonisation and continent formation until the mantle cooled and convection slowed down. Others argue that the sub continental lithospheric mantle is too buoyant to subduct and that the lack of Archean rocks is a function of erosion by subsequent tectonic events. The question of whether or not plate tectonic activity existed in the Archean is an active area of modern geoscientific research. 
There were no large continents until late in the Archean; small protocontinents were the norm, prevented from coalescing into larger units by the high rate of geologic activity. These felsic protocontinents probably formed at hotspots rather than subduction zones, from a variety of sources: igneous differentiation of mafic rocks to produce intermediate and felsic rocks, mafic magma melting more felsic rocks and forcing granitization of intermediate rocks, partial melting of mafic rock, and from the metamorphic alteration of felsic sedimentary rocks. Such continental fragments may not have been preserved if they were not buoyant enough or fortunate enough to avoid energetic subduction zones.
Another explanation for a general lack of early Archean rocks greater than 3800 Ma is the amount of extrasolar debris present within the early solar system. Even after planetary formation, considerable volumes of large asteroids and meteorites still existed, and bombarded the early Earth until approximately 3800 Ma. A barrage of particullarly large impactors known as the late heavy bombardment may have prevented any large crustal fragments from forming by literally shattering the early protocontinents.
The Archean atmosphere apparently lacked free oxygen. Temperatures appear to have been near modern levels even within 500 Ma of Earth formation, with liquid water present, due to the presence of sedimentary rocks within certain highly deformed gneisses. Astronomers think that the sun was about one-third dimmer, which may have contributed to lower global temperatures than otherwise expected. This is thought to reflect larger amounts of greenhouse gases than later in the Earth's history.
By the end of the Archaean c. 2600 Ma, plate tectonic activity may have been similar to that of the modern Earth; there are well preserved sedimentary basins and evidence of volcanic arcs, intracontinental rifts, continent-continent collisions and widespread globe-spanning orogenic events suggesting the assembly and destruction of one and perhaps several supercontinents. Liquid water was prevalent, and deep oceanic basins are known to have existed by the presence of banded iron formations, chert beds, chemical sediments and pillow basalts.
Although a few mineral grains are known that are older, the oldest rock formations exposed on the surface of the Earth are Archean or slightly older. Archean rocks are known from Greenland, the Canadian Shield, western Australia, and southern Africa. Although the first continents formed during this eon, rock of this age makes up only 7% of the world's current cratons; even allowing for erosion and destruction of past formations, evidence suggests that only 5-40% of the present continental crust formed during the Archean.
In contrast to the Proterozoic, Archean rocks are often heavily metamorphized deep-water sediments, such as graywackes, mudstones, volcanic sediments, and banded iron formations. Greenstone belts are typical Archean formations, consisting of alternating high and low-grade metamorphic rocks. The high-grade rocks were derived from volcanic island arcs, while the low-grade metamorphic rocks represent deep-sea sediments eroded from the neighboring island arcs and deposited in a forearc basin. In short, greenstone belts represent sutured protocontinents.
Fossils of cyanobacterial mats (stromatolites) are found throughout the Archean—becoming especially common late in the eon—while a few probable bacterial fossils are known from chert beds. In addition to the domain Bacteria (once known as Eubacteria), microfossils of the extremophilic domain Archaea have also been identified.
Life was probably present throughout the Archean, but may have been limited to simple non-nucleated single-celled organisms, called Prokaryota (and formerly known as Monera); there are no known eukaryotic fossils, though they might have evolved during the Archean and simply not left any fossils. However, no fossil evidence yet exists for ultramicroscopic intracellular organisms such as viruses.
- Stanley, Steven M. Earth System History. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1999. ISBN 0-7167-2882-6 p. 297-301
- Stanley, pp. 297-301
- Stanley, pp. 301-2
- Stanley, pp. 302-3
- Stanley, 307
- Stanley, pp. 306, 323