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Formation of early Archean Granite-Greenstone Terranes from a globally chondritic mantle: Insights from igneous rocks of the Pilbara Craton, Western Australia

Martin J. Whitehouse, Chris M. Gray, Anthony I.S. Kemp, Andreas Petersson

The continental crust grows via juvenile additions from the mantle. However, the timing of initial continent stabilisation and the rate of subsequent continental growth during the first billion years of Earth history is widely debated, in part due to uncertainty over the composition of the mantle source of new crust. Well-preserved Archean granite-greenstone terranes, as present within the Pilbara Craton (Western Australia), provide insights into the sources of felsic magmas and the processes of continental growth and evolution in the distant geological past at the regional scale. Here, we present zircon U-Pb, O and Hf isotope data from ancient gneissic and granitic rocks of the Pilbara Craton, to decipher magma sources and the timing and processes of craton growth. There is no evidence for depleted mantle compositions, and the simplest interpretation is that the crust of the Pilbara Craton was generated from mantle with a chondritic Hf isotope composition. Our results indicate crustal addition at ~3.59 Ga, represented by emplacement of gabbroic to anorthositic rocks. We suggest that the formation of these igneous rocks, and the foundering of the complementary residues, triggered extensive melting of hot, upwelling mantle, leading to the subsequent accumulation of the >12 km thick greenstone belt eruptive sequences from 3.53 Ga, with emplacement of coeval felsic magmas at depth. This process shaped the initial crustal configuration of the proto-craton, which subsequently underwent gravitationally driven overturn and reworking to generate stable, cratonic continental crust with the distinctive dome and keel architecture. The zircon Hf and O isotope signatures of the Pilbara igneous rocks from ~3.59–3.4 Ga do not support remelting of an ancient (> 3.8 Ga) basement, and reinforce the overwhelmingly chondritic to near-chondritic zircon Hf isotope composition of Eoarchean meta-igneous rocks from a number of different Archean cratons. A corollary of this remarkable global consistency is that a significant volume of the mantle maintained a chondritic composition for the Lu-Hf system from the formation of the Earth into the Paleoarchean (up to 3.6–3.5 Ga), as would be the case if stabilised volumes of felsic continental crust prior to 3.5 Ga were relatively small. One implication is that the common assumption of a linear evolution of depleted mantle from 4.5 Ga to the present day is inappropriate for determining the timing and volume of continental crust extraction in the Archean. The nearly identical early evolution of the Pilbara and Kaapvaal cratons suggests a common process to generate Archean granite-greenstone terranes that does not require extensive reworking of ancient crust, but rather involves juvenile crustal addition above persistent zones of upwelling, chondritic mantle.