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Fool’s Gold & the Ascent of Man

Members of the team sampling 480-million-year-old black shales from the Meguma Terrain in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Members of the team sampling 480-million-year-old black shales from the Meguma Terrain in Nova Scotia, Canada.

By Ross Large

Ancient samples of pyrite, or fool’s gold, have revealed the role of plate tectonics in bursts of evolution and mass extinction events. Did man ultimately originate from mega-mountains?

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As a young scientist I often dreamt about going back in time to observe the surge and decline of life that makes up Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Imagine the excitement of riding a time machine that takes you back to when the Earth was 3.6 billion years old, and then progressing forward every 100 million years, making 36 stops along the way to observe changes to the Earth and the march of evolution: when life first appeared; the “boring billion” years when life stagnated; the Cambrian explosion that kick-started complex life; the five great mass extinction events; and the final appearance of man.

Now I have been fortunate enough to achieve this dream. A team I have led at The University of Tasmania has developed such a “time machine” by measuring more than 5000 crystals of pyrite using a laser beam attached to a super-sensitive chemical analyser. The results have led to a revolutionary change in our understanding of the symbiotic relationship between geological and evolutionary processes on Earth.

The pyrite crystals we analysed recorded changes in the chemistry of ancient oceans, enabling us to determine how the evolution of bacteria and higher life forms was affected, or even controlled, by concentrations of ocean trace elements.

The analytical data showed that the earliest oceans, more than 2 billion years ago, contained much higher levels of nickel...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.