Record of mid-Archaean subduction from metamorphism in the Barberton terrain, South Africa
Although plate tectonics is the central geological process of the modern Earth, its form and existence during the Archaean era (4.0-2.5 Gyr ago) are disputed. The existence of subduction during this time is particularly controversial because characteristic subduction-related mineral assemblages, typically documenting apparent geothermal gradients of 15°C km-1 or less, have not yet been recorded from in situ Archaean rocks (the lowest recorded apparent geothermal gradients are greater than 25°C km -1). Despite this absence from the rock record, low Archaean geothermal gradients are suggested by eclogitic nodules in kimberlites and circumstantial evidence for subduction processes, including possible accretion-related structures, has been reported in Archaean terrains. The lack of spatially and temporally well-constrained high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphism continues, however, to cast doubt on the relevance of subduction-driven tectonics during the first 1.5 Gyr of the Earth's history. Here we report garnet-albite-bearing mineral assemblages that record pressures of 1.2-1.5 GPa at temperatures of 600-650°C from supracrustal amphibolites from the mid-Archaean Barberton granitoid-greenstone terrain. These conditions point to apparent geothermal gradients of 12-15°C-similar to those found in recent subduction zones-that coincided with the main phase of terrane accretion in the structurally overlying Barberton greenstone belt. These high-pressure, low-temperature conditions represent metamorphic evidence for cold and strong lithosphere, as well as subduction-driven tectonic processes, during the evolution of the early Earth. © 2006 Nature Publishing Group.