The Mesoarchean emergence of modern-style subduction

R. H. Smithies, M. J. Van Kranendonk, D. C. Champion

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

160 Citations (Scopus)


Well-preserved volcanic sequences span the Paleoarchean to Neoarchean evolution of the Pilbara Craton, in northwestern Australia. This region provides the best physical evidence bearing on the stage of Earth's history when modern-style tectonic processes began. Paleoarchean assemblages in the eastern nucleus of the craton (the 3.51-3.24 Ga Pilbara Supergroup) show few features that can reasonably be interpreted as evidence for modern-style subduction processes. Incompatible trace element-enriched felsic volcanic horizons show geochemical evidence for the interaction between mafic magmas and crust, but this evidence, on its own, can equally well be interpreted in terms of either a subduction-enriched mantle source or local and limited assimilation of felsic crust into the voluminous tholeiitic magmas that dominate the Pilbara Supergroup. Viewed in context within the thick autochthonous and consistently upward-younging Pilbara Supergroup, these felsic units are most likely related to the same plume-dominated processes that formed the basalts that dominate the supergroup. It is very unlikely that modern-style plate tectonic processes played any role in the Paleoarchean evolution of the Pilbara Craton, although some form of non-uniformitarian (e.g. flat) subduction process may have operated. In stark contrast, the Mesoarchean units of the West Pilbara Terrane and the late-tectonic basins that cover that boundary between the West and East Pilbara Terranes, show clear evidence for modern-style convergent margin processes. Igneous rocks in this belt, which flanks the old eastern cratonic nuclei, have enriched geochemical signatures that cannot be accounted for by crustal contamination. This region is also characterised by a linear magmatic and structural fabric, by the presence of lithologically and geochronologically exotic belts, and by the presence of a broad belt of isotopically more juvenile crust. The collective strength of these arguments provides compelling evidence that a modern-style oceanic arc fringed the East Pilbara Terrane at 3.12 Ga and accreted to that terrane by 2.97 Ga. These assemblages mark the minimum age for the birth of modern-style plate subduction process. Crown

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-68
Number of pages19
JournalGondwana Research
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Crustal evolution
  • Mesoarchean
  • Pilbara
  • Pilbara craton
  • Plate tectonics
  • Subduction

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


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