Precambrian Time

Learn more about the period that occurred 4.5 billion to 542 million years ago

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Billion-year-old Precambrian rocks form the walls—and loom on the bottom—of Western Brook Pond, a clear lake in Gros Morne National Park.

Precambrian time covers the vast bulk of the Earth's history, starting with the planet's creation about 4.5 billion years ago and ending with the emergence of complex, multicelled life-forms almost four billion years later.

What Was Happening on Earth at This Time

The Precambrian is the earliest of the geologic ages, which are marked by different layers of sedimentary rock. Laid down over millions of years, these rock layers contain a permanent record of the Earth's past, including the fossilized remains of plants and animals buried when the sediments were formed.

The Earth was already more than 600 million years old when life began. The planet had cooled down from its original molten state, developing a solid crust and oceans created from water vapor in the atmosphere. Many scientists think these primordial seas gave rise to life, with hot, mineral-rich volcanic vents acting as catalysts for chemical reactions across the surface of tiny water bubbles, which led to the first cell membranes. Other bubbles are thought to have formed self-replicating substances by attracting chemicals from around them. Over time the two combined to produce energy-using, living cells.

The earliest living organisms were microscopic bacteria, which show up in the fossil record as early as 3.4 billion years ago. As their numbers multiplied and supplies of their chemical fuel were eaten up, bacteria sought out an alternative energy source. New varieties began to harness the power of the sun through a biochemical process known as photosynthesis—a move that would ultimately lead to simple plants and which opened the planet up to animal life.

Some three billion years ago, the Earth's atmosphere was virtually devoid of oxygen. At about 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen was released from the seas as a byproduct of photosynthesis by cyanobacteria. Levels of the gas gradually climbed, reaching about one percent around two billion years ago. About 800 million years ago, oxygen levels reached about 21 percent and began to breathe life into more complex organisms. The oxygen-rich ozone layer was also established, shielding the Earth's surface from harmful solar radiation.

Unfamiliar Life-Forms

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