[pree-kam-bree-uhn, -keym-]
Precambrian, name of a major division of geologic time (see Geologic Timescale, table), from c.5 billion to 570 million years ago. It is now usually divided into the Archean and Proterozoic eons. Precambrian time includes 80% of the earth's history.

Precambrian rocks are mostly covered by rock systems of more recent origin, but where visible they commonly display evidence of having been altered by intense metamorphism. Precambrian rocks often occur in shields, which are large areas of relatively low elevation that form parts of continental masses. One of the largest exposed areas of early Precambrian rocks is the Canadian Shield, where geologist Sir William Logan did his pioneer work. It covers most of Greenland, extends over more than half of Canada, and reaches into the United States as the Superior Highlands and the Adirondack Mts.

The rocks of this region, and of the early Precambrian as a whole, are generally granite, schist, or gneiss. The most notable formations are the Keewatin and Coutchiching of Minnesota and the adjoining part of Canada; the Grenville of Ontario, which, however, may be late Precambrian; and the widely distributed Laurentian. The Keewatin series of rocks is composed chiefly of metamorphosed lava, with some sediments; the Coutchiching series is chiefly of sedimentary gneisses and schists. The Grenville limestone, marble, gneiss, and quartzite are predominantly metamorphosed sediments; the Laurentian gneiss and granite are probably younger than the other series, having been forced up through the Grenville as igneous rock. After the appearance of the Laurentian, the Temiskaming, or Sudburian, sediments were deposited, and a second series of gneisses and granites, the Algoman, was formed.

Elsewhere in North America, early Precambrian rocks are exposed in the Grand Canyon of Arizona and in the Teton Range of Wyoming. Among the other shield areas composed of early Precambrian rocks are the Angara Shield in Siberia, the Australian Shield, the Baltic Shield in Europe, the Antarctic Shield, and the African Shield comprising most of the African continent. In South America, the Amazon River basin separates the Guiana and the Brazilian shields. Fossils have been reported from this era, but few have been found in strata universally acknowledged to be early Precambrian. Evidence such as bacteria and algallike spheroids, supports the belief that rudimentary life existed. During the early Precambrian, radioactive heat from the new planet may have been so great that little permanent crust could survive.

By the latter Precambrian, heat dissipated enough to allow the continental crust to form; crustal rifting, mountain building, and volcanic activity then dominated, as did sedimentation. The life of the late Precambrian is poorly represented by fossils, but a few invertebrates including creatures resembling jellyfish and worms have been discovered. The best evidence that there probably were numerous forms of life is the variety and complexity which suddenly appears in Cambrian fauna. Mineral deposits associated with Precambrian rocks have yielded most of the world's gold and nickel in addition to large quantities of copper, silver, radium, and uranium.

The Precambrian (Pre-Cambrian) is an informal name for the supereon comprising the eons of the geologic timescale that came before the current Phanerozoic eon. It spans from the formation of Earth around 4500 Ma (million years ago) to the evolution of abundant macroscopic hard-shelled animals, which marked the beginning of the Cambrian, the first period of the first era of the Phanerozoic eon, some 542 Ma. It is named after the Roman name for Wales - Cambria - where rocks from this age were first studied.

The Precambrian has sometimes been erroneously referred to as an "era", which is a subdivision of an eon.


Remarkably little is known about the Precambrian Era, despite it making up roughly seven-eighths of the Earth's history, and what little is known has largely been discovered in the past four or five decades. The Precambrian fossil record is poor, and those fossils present (e.g. stromatolites) are of limited biostratigraphic use. Many Precambrian rocks are heavily metamorphosed, obscuring their origins, while others have either been destroyed by erosion, or remain deeply buried beneath Phanerozoic strata.

It is thought that the Earth itself coalesced from material in orbit around the sun roughly 4500 Ma and may have been struck by a very large (Mars-sized) planetesimal shortly after it formed, splitting off material that came together to form the Moon (see Giant impact theory). A stable crust was apparently in place by 4400 Ma, since zircon crystals from Western Australia have been dated at 4404 Ma.

The term Precambrian is somewhat dated, but is still in common use among geologists and paleontologists. It was briefly also called the Cryptozoic eon. It seems likely that it will eventually be replaced by the preferred terms Proterozoic, Archaean, and Hadean, and become a deprecated term. (See geologic time scale.)

Life before the Cambrian

It is not known when life originated, but carbon in 3800 million year old rocks from islands off western Greenland may be of organic origin. Well-preserved bacteria older than 3460 million years have been found at North Pole, in Western Australia Probable fossils 100 million years older have been found in the same area. There is a fairly solid record of bacterial life throughout the remainder of the Precambrian.

Excepting a few contested reports of much older forms from USA and India, the first complex multicelled life forms seem to have appeared roughly 600 Ma. A quite diverse collection of soft-bodied forms is known from a variety of locations worldwide between 542 and 600 Ma. These are referred to as Ediacaran or Vendian biota. Hard-shelled creatures appeared toward the end of that timespan.

A very diverse collection of forms appeared around 544 Ma, starting in the latest Precambrian with a poorly understood small shelly fauna and ending in the very early Cambrian with a very diverse, and quite modern Burgess fauna, the rapid radiation of forms called the Cambrian explosion of life.

Planetary environment and the oxygen catastrophe

Details of plate motions and such are only hazily known in the Precambrian. It is generally believed that small proto-continents existed prior to 3000 Ma, and that most of the Earth's landmasses collected into a single supercontinent around 1000 Ma. The supercontinent, known as Rodinia, broke up around 600 Ma. A number of glacial periods have been identified going as far back as the Huronian epoch, roughly 2200 Ma. The best studied is the Sturtian-Varangian glaciation, around 600 Ma, which may have brought glacial conditions all the way to the equator, resulting in a "Snowball Earth".

The atmosphere of the early Earth is poorly known, but it is thought to have been smothered in reducing gases, containing very little free oxygen. The young planet had a reddish tint, and its seas are thought to have been olive green. Many materials with insoluble oxides appear to have been present in the oceans for hundreds of millions of years after the Earth's formation.

When evolving life forms developed photosynthesis, oxygen began to be produced in large quantities, causing an ecological crisis sometimes called the Oxygen Catastrophe. The oxygen was immediately tied up in chemical reactions, primarily with iron, until the supply of oxidizable surfaces ran out. After that the modern high-oxygen atmosphere developed. Older rocks contain massive banded iron formations that were apparently laid down as iron and oxygen first combined.


A diverse terminology has evolved covering the early years of the Earth's existence, but it is tending to settle out and come into greater use as radiometric dating allows plausible real dates to be assigned to specific formations and features. The terms Archean (older than about 2500 Ma), Proterozoic (2500-600 Ma), and Neoproterozoic (600-542 Ma) appear to have general currency. Some additional terms are included in the geological time line. See Timetable of the Precambrian.

  • Proterozoic : Modern use most often refers to the time from the lower Cambrian boundary, 542 Ma, back through 2500 Ma. The boundary has been placed at various times by various authors, but has now been settled at 542 Ma. As originally used, it was a synonym for "Precambrian" and hence included everything prior to the Cambrian boundary.
  • Archaean : Roughly from 2500-3800 Ma.
  • Hadean : Prior to 3800 Ma. This term was intended originally to cover the time before any preserved rocks were deposited, although a very few old rock beds seem to be slightly older than 3800 Ma. Some zircon crystals from about 4400 Ma demonstrate the existence of crust in the Hadean Eon. Other records from Hadean time come from the moon and meteorites.

It has been proposed that the Precambrian should be divided into eons and eras that reflect stages of planetary evolution, rather than the current scheme based upon numerical ages. Such a system could rely on events in the stratigraphic record and be demarcated by GSSPs. The Precambrian could be divided into five "natural" eons, characterized as follows.

  1. Accretion and differentiation: a period of planetary formation until giant Moon-forming impact event.
  2. Hadean: the Late Heavy Bombardment period.
  3. Archean: a period defined by the first crustal formations (the Isua greenstone belt) until the deposition of banded iron formations due to increasing atmospheric oxygen content.
  4. Transition: a period of continued iron banded formation until the first continental red beds.
  5. Proterozoic: a period of modern plate tectonics until the first animals.


  • Valley, John W., William H. Peck, Elizabeth M. King (1999) Zircons Are Forever, The Outcrop for 1999, University of Wisconsin-Madison Wgeology.wisc.eduEvidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago Accessed Jan. 10, 2006
  • Wilde S.A., Valley J.W., Peck W.H. and Graham C.M. (2001) Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago. Nature, v. 409, pp. 175-178.
  • Wyche, S., D. R. Nelson and A. Riganti (2004) 4350–3130 Ma detrital zircons in the Southern Cross Granite–Greenstone Terrane, Western Australia: implications for the early evolution of the Yilgarn Craton, Australian Journal of Earth Sciences Volume 51 Zircon ages from W. Australia - Abstract Accessed Jan. 10, 2006

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