Bedded carbonate rocks from the 3.45 Ga Warrawoona Group, Pilbara Craton, contain structures that have been regarded either as the oldest known stromatolites or as abiotic hydrothermal deposits. We present new field and petrological observations and high-precision REE + Y data from the carbonates in order to test the origin of the deposits. Trace element geochemistry from a number of laminated stromatolitic dolomite samples of the c. 3.40 Ga Strelley Pool Chert conclusively shows that they precipitated from anoxic seawater, probably in a very shallow environment consistent with previous sedimentological observations. Edge-wise conglomerates in troughs between stromatolites and widespread cross-stratification provide additional evidence of stromatolite construction, at least partly, from layers of particulate sediment, rather than solely from rigid crusts. Accumulation of particulate sediment on steep stromatolite sides in a high-energy environment suggests organic binding of the surface. Relative and absolute REE + Y contents are exactly comparable with Late Archaean microbial carbonates of widely agreed biological origin. Ankerite from a unit of bedded ankerite–chert couplets from near the top of the stratigraphically older (3.49 Ga) Dresser Formation, which immediately underlies wrinkly stromatolites with small, broad, low-amplitude domes, also precipitated from anoxic seawater. The REE + Y data of carbonates from the Strelley Pool Chert and Dresser Formation contrast strongly with those from siderite layers in a jasper–siderite–Fe-chlorite banded iron-formation from the base of the Panorama Formation (3.45 Ga), which is clearly hydrothermal in origin. The geochemical results, together with sedimentological data, strongly support: (1) deposition of Dresser Formation and Strelley Pool Chert carbonates from Archaean seawater, in part as particulate carbonate sediment; (2) biogenicity of the stromatolitic carbonates; (3) a reducing Archaean atmosphere; (4) ongoing extensive terrestrial erosion prior to ∼3.45 Ga.