The Proterozoic is a geological eon representing a period before the first abundant complex life on Earth. The Proterozoic Eon extended from 2500 Ma to 542.0 ± 1.0 Ma (million years ago), and is the most recent part of the old, informally named ‘Precambrian’ time.
The Proterozoic consists of 3 geologic eras, from oldest to youngest:
The well-identified events were:
The Proterozoic record
The geologic record of the Proterozoic is much better than that for the preceding Archean
. In contrast to the deep-water deposits of the Archean, the Proterozoic features many strata
that were laid down in extensive shallow epicontinental seas
; furthermore, many of these rocks are less metamorphosed
than Archean-age ones, and plenty are unaltered. Study of these rocks show that the eon featured massive, rapid continental
accretion (unique to the Proterozoic), supercontinent cycles
, and wholly-modern orogenic
The first known glaciations occurred during the Proterozoic, one began shortly after the beginning of the eon, while there were at least four during the Neoproterozoic, climaxing with the Snowball Earth of the Varangian glaciation.
The build-up of oxygen
One of the most important events of the Proterozoic was the gathering up of oxygen
in the Earth's atmosphere. Though oxygen was undoubtedly released by photosynthesis
well back in Archean times, it could not build up to any significant degree until chemical sinks — unoxidized sulfur
— had been filled; until roughly 2.3 billion years ago, oxygen was probably only 1% to 2% of its current level. Banded iron formations
, which provide most of the world's iron ore, were also a prominent chemical sink; most accumulation ceased after 1.9 billion years ago, either due to an increase in oxygen or a more thorough mixing of the oceanic water column.
Red beds, which are colored by hematite, indicate an increase in atmospheric oxygen after 2 billion years ago; they are not found in older rocks. The oxygen build-up was probably due to two factors: a filling of the chemical sinks, and an increase in carbon burial, which sequestered organic compounds that would have otherwise been oxidized by the atmosphere.
The Mackenzie dike swarm
in Canada's Canadian Shield
is the largest known dike swarm
on Earth, and was a source for significant massive flood basalt
eruptions throughout the Proterozoic period. The source for the Mackenzie dike swarm is thought to have been a mantle plume
center called the Mackenzie hotspot
The first advanced single-celled and multi-cellular life roughly coincides with the start of the accumulation of free oxygen; this may have been due to an increase in the oxidized nitrates
use, as opposed to cyanobacteria
. It was also during the Proterozoic that the first symbiotic
relationships between mitochondria
(for nearly all eukaryotes) and chloroplasts
and some protists
only) and their hosts evolved.
The blossoming of eukaryotes such as acritarchs did not preclude the expansion of cyanobacteria; in fact, stromatolites reached their greatest abundance and diversity during the Proterozoic, peaking roughly 1.2 billion years ago.
Classically, the boundary between the Proterozoic and the Phanerozoic eons was set at the base of the Cambrian period when the first fossils of animals known as trilobites and archeocyathids appeared. In the second half of the 20th century, a number of fossil forms have been found in Proterozoic rocks, but the upper boundary of the Proterozoic has remained fixed at the base of the Cambrian, which is currently placed at 542 Ma.