Record of mid-Archaean subduction from metamorphism in the Barberton terrain, South Africa

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Abstract

Although plate tectonics is the central geological process of the modern Earth, its form and existence during the Archaean era (4.0-2.5 Gyr ago) are disputed1,2. The existence of subduction during this time is particularly controversial because characteristic subduction-related mineral assemblages, typically documenting apparent geothermal gradients of 15 °C km−1or less3, have not yet been recorded fromin situArchaean rocks (the lowest recorded apparent geothermal gradients4are greater than 25 °C km−1). Despite this absence from the rock record, low Archaean geothermal gradients are suggested by eclogitic nodules in kimberlites5,6and circumstantial evidence for subduction processes, including possible accretion-related structures2, has been reported in Archaean terrains. The lack of spatially and temporally well-constrained high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphism continues, however, to cast doubt on the relevance of subduction-driven tectonics during the first 1.5 Gyr of the Earth's history7. Here we report garnet-albite-bearing mineral assemblages that record pressures of 1.2-1.5 GPa at temperatures of 600-650 °C from supracrustal amphibolites from the mid-Archaean Barberton granitoid-greenstone terrain. These conditions point to apparent geothermal gradients of 12-15 °C-similar to those found in recent subduction zones-that coincided with the main phase of terrane accretion in the structurally overlying Barberton greenstone belt8. These high-pressure, low-temperature conditions represent metamorphic evidence for cold and strong lithosphere, as well as subduction-driven tectonic processes, during the evolution of the early Earth.

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