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ABSTRACT

Chemical sediments are common and diverse in the c. 3500 Myr old North Pole chert-barite unit in the Warrawoona Group, Western Australia. Although almost all original minerals were replaced during hydrothermal alteration, metamorphism and deformation, pseudomorphic relics of sedimentary and diagenetic textures and structures show that at least six lithofacies were partly or wholly chemical in origin. These contained five main chemical sedimentary components: primary carbonate mud, diagenetic carbonate crystals, primary sulphate crystals, diagenetic sulphate crystals and diagenetic sulphate nodules. All show a wide range of characteristics consistent only with a marine evaporative origin. Diagenetic carbonate and sulphate crystals, once ferroan dolomite and gypsum, were precipitated within volcanogenic lutites high on littoral mudflats. The other evaporative phases were apparently deposited behind a barrier bar composed of stranded pumice rafts. Primary sulphate crystals, once gypsum and now barite, were precipitated in semi-permanent pools immediately behind the bar. Primary carbonate mud, originally calcitic or aragonitic but now silicified, was deposited in nearby channels and on surrounding mudflats. Within these sediments, diagenetic carbonate crystals (formerly ferroan dolomite) and diagenetic sulphate nodules and crystals (once gypsum) grew during later desiccation. The existence of these evaporites, and more like them in the sediments of other Early Archaean cratons, suggests that shallow marine and terrestrial conditions prevailed over a small but significant portion of the early Earth, contrary to some models of global tectonic evolution. Their overall similarity with more recent evaporitic deposits indicates that there was greater conformity between conditions in modern and primeval sea-shore environments than might be expected, given the great age difference. The attitude implicit in many accounts of Earth's early history, that evaporites were either not deposited or not preserved in Archaean sediments, thus seems to be incorrect.