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Geologic timescale
(millions of years ago)

The Precambrian (or Pre-Cambrian) is an informal name for 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 fossils, which marked the beginning of the Cambrian, the first period of the first era of the Phanerozoic eon, some 542 Ma.


Remarkably little is known about the Precambrian, 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.

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 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 Texas 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 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 were thought to be 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 is most often the period from the beginning of the lower Cambrian boundary, 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.
    • Neoproterozoic : the earliest subdivision of the Proterozoic roughly from the Cambrian boundary back to as far as 900 Ma, although modern use tends to represent a shorter interval : 542-600 Ma. The Neoproterozoic corresponds to Precambrian Z rocks of older North American geology.
      • Ediacaran : In March 2004, the International Union of Geological Sciences officially defined the term to describe this geologic period. The period begins at the time of deposition of a particular stratigraphic boundary, about 620 Ma. The period ends at the beginning of the Cambrian, 542 Ma.
      • Cryogenian a proposed subdivision of the Neoproterozoic.
      • Tonian a proposed subdivision of the Neoproterozoic.
    • Mesoproterozoic : the middle division of the Proterozoic. Roughly from 900-1600 Ma. Corresponds to Precambrian Y rocks of older North American geology.
    • Paleoproterozoic : The oldest subdivision of the Proterozoic. Roughly from 1600-2500 Ma. Corresponds to Precambrian X rocks of older North American geology.
  • Archaean : Roughly from 2500-3800 Ma.
  • Hadean : Prior to 3800 Ma. This term was probably intended originally to cover the period before any preserved rocks were deposited. A very few old rock beds seem to be slightly older than 4400 Ma.

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.
(Hadean) Archean Proterozoic Phanerozoic
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