The role of detrital zircons in Hadean crustal research

Oliver Nebel, Robert Paul Rapp, Greg Mark Yaxley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


Meso-Archean sedimentary sequences at Mt. Narryer and the Jack Hills of the Narryer Terrane in Western Australia's Yilgarn Craton contain detrital zircon grains with ages as old as 4.37 Ga, the oldest preserved terrestrial matter. These grains are rare remnants of Hadean (4.5–4.0 Ga) terrestrial crust and their survival stems from the crystallographic properties of zircon during crustal reworking: they are resistant to physical and chemical weathering. Zircons are further suitable for single grain, precise age determinations making them a unique archive of the crustal past. Only a small proportion of all detrital zircons from the Narryer Terrane show Hadean age spectra and younger overgrowth rims on all ‘Hadean’ grains indicate multiple recycling events. Numerous studies that applied a spectacular range of analytical tools and proxies have been undertaken to decipher the geochemical nature of these zircons' host rocks, in order to place constraints on Hadean geodynamics and the processes responsible for creating the earliest terrestrial crust. Their elemental and isotope budget and mineral inclusions have helped to develop an emerging picture of a water-rich, evolved Hadean crust. However, subsequent studies have challenged this view and it seems that each piece of new evidence indicative of an early, evolved continental crust has non-unique interpretations also permissive of mafic to ultra-mafic crust. In this review we examine these disparate interpretations and their possible implications and conclude that at least parts of the earliest terrestrial crust were hydrated. However, to date there is no conclusive evidence for preserved granitic, continental crust. The protoliths of the Hadean detrital zircons were likely acidic in nature, yet the composition of the greater terrane from which these melts were derived was probably mafic. It remains unclear if the zircons formed in a geodynamic environment that includes Hadean subduction. We suspect that the Hadean crust was an initially homogeneous, thin, mafic layer. It was spiked with minor, low-degree, anatectic melts of granitoid composition formed from material that formerly resided at the surface and was subsequently buried. The process responsible for this was likely sag-subduction triggered by repeated volcanic resurfacing, possibly fed by early mantle plumes. Regional scale granitoid plutonism of the tonalite–trondhjemite–granodiorite suite (TTG) predominates granitoid-generating processes in the Eo-Archean, along with the first appearance of low-Ca (s-type) granites at around 3.9 Ga, evidenced by the first occurrence of detrital monazite in the Narryer Terrane. This coincides with the first addition of juvenile crust as documented by the global detrital zircon record and temperature signatures of the late heavy bombardment in Narryer Terrane zircons. This age probably marks the onset of Archean-style tectonics, likely associated with subduction activity, which lasted until ~ 3 Ga, when modern style plate tectonics emerged.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-327
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2014
Externally publishedYes

Cite this