IBRI Research Report #54 (2004)

Pre-Cambrian Carbon:
Implications for the Genesis One Account of Creation


Clifford M. Marsh

Copyright © 2004 by Clifford M. Marsh. All rights reserved.


Although geological evidence for green vegetation in the pre-Cambrian period is rare it does exist unequivocally in the form of anthracite, which is derived only from such vegetation. This indicates that green vegetation was present on the Earth's surface during this geological period. Other pre-Cambrian carbon deposits are also critically discussed. Some possible types of pre-Cambrian green vegetation are then described and the whole linked with the Genesis one account.


Although the author is in agreement with the doctrinal statement of IBRI, it does not follow that all of the viewpoints espoused in this paper represent official positions of IBRI. Since one of the purposes of the IBRI report series is to serve as a preprint forum, it is possible that the author has revised some aspects of this work since it was first written. 


Dr. Clifford M. Marsh is a former associate professor of chemistry at the University of South Africa with a PhD in Materials Chemistry, and a number of publications in this field and in the Analytical Chemistry of complex bituminous materials. He is currently studying for a ThD (apologetics) with Trinity Seminary, Cochin, India, and a diploma in Earth Science with the Open University, UK.  His current research interests include the Biblical accounts of creation and the philosophy of science. 

Pre-Cambrian Carbon:
Implications for the Genesis One Account of Creation

1. Introduction

    In nature carbon is found, in its elemental form, as graphite and diamond. An impure form of natural carbon is anthracite, which would also contain oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and a few other elements that are found in organic matter.

    Cambrian rocks mark the first occurrence of animal fossils, the start of the phanerozoic (= visible animals) era. Both graphite and anthracite deposits are found in pre-Cambrian rocks (1, 2). The graphite, it is said, might be, in part, derived from coal deposits; anthracite would be a derivative of a coal deposit and therefore a clear signature of fossilised organic remains.

    This paper will take a look at this subject and at possible implications for our understanding of the historical geology of this period with respect to the Genesis account. The subject is not new; discussion of possible pre-Cambrian plant life on land was already going on over 100 years ago! ( 3).
    The period of maximum continent formation was probably about 2.5-3.0 billion years ago. Persistent land crust appeared as early as 3.8 billion years ago (4).

    The main parallel to this is in Genesis 1, in the third creation period; the land first appeared then vegetation on the land. The Hebrew word used for vegetation, is 'deshe' which can mean (tender) grass, (tender)herb, or simply 'green', with reference to vegetation (5) . This is the first mention of any form of organic material and of life as such.

    It is taken for granted by many scientists that life began in the sea as blue-green algae (6); however there is no mention of this in Genesis 1, although it is accepted that Genesis 1 is a summary of the creation story so this possibility is not precluded.   Others consider that life began around deep sea vents, or volcanic vents on land.

    There is now increasing evidence for the existence of land vegetation in the pre-Cambrian period; this period would correspond with the third period of the Genesis creation story. Complementary evidence suggests that the early atmosphere may have contained more oxygen than has been thought, (7,8);   this could be an indication, in part, of very early photosynthesis, which produces oxygen as a waste product. Oxygen build-up in the atmosphere is currently dated at about 1.9-2.2 billion years ago (9); this indicates that photosynthesis was probably already taking place.  The earliest current suggested date for photosynthesis is about 2.7 billion years ago (10,11) although photosynthesis might have taken place as early as 3.6 billion years ago, however this data is still controversial (10). Non-photosynthetic life forms may be older. The origins of much archaean rock land form seem to have been sub-marine (6); this is consonant with the Genesis record concerning the rising of the land from the sea. The oldest surviving pre-Cambrian rocks are in the Isua group in Greenland (about 3.7 billion years old), but there is no clear evidence to date of land plant fossils in this group.  The coming of 'deshe' is clearly associated with land, that is plants that could grow on land or in shallow, running water.
2.    Pre-Cambrian Carbonaceous Deposits.

2.1   Graphite. 
 This material can have both organic and inorganic origins. Inorganically it could be produced by the reduction of oxygen-containing compounds, specifically carbonates. Organically it would derive from formerly living organisms, perhaps during metamorphosis (the heating or compressing) of rocks. It is also derived from diamond by breakdown of the diamond structure under certain conditions (12). It has been suggested that diamond may have formed below the ocean floor during crustal events (6). Such diamond to graphite transition would account, at least in part, for the presence of graphite in rocks of the Archean period. The organic source would have, it is assumed, been simple sea life, e.g. blue-green algae remains. Radioactivity in rocks may also play a part in the formation of graphite from abiotic or biotic sources  (13).

The 13C:12C carbon isotope ratio is important in determining whether graphitic material is of biogenic or abiogenic origin because organic molecules 'prefer' the lighter 12C over 13C; thus organic matter will have a slightly lower 13C:12C ratio than inorganic matter;   this isotopic ratio has been used to infer biotic remains in the Isua group in Greenland (14). Unfortunately this ratio can be distorted by a number of factors in geological samples (15), so these results are controversial;  wherever possible, an accurate history of the sample is important.
 2.2    Anthracite.   

    The presence of this material in pre-Cambrian rocks can only be explained by the presence of photosynthesising vegetation. Anthracite is a product of coal metamorphosis; coal is formed from vegetal remains, almost always from land plants (4); anthracite is therefore a product of 'fossilised' vegetation and serves as a definite marker for organic remains. Several recent research papers have discussed evidence for pre-Cambrian anthracite. Anthracite-like material has been found in paleo-proterozoic rocks of a mountain group in Labrador dated at 1.9-2.0 billion years ago (2); these rocks were part of a lower sedimentary sequence. The material was in several thin layers within the rock formation. X-ray diffraction results indicated the presence of an amorphous organic material and that there was no graphite present; this material was assumed to be derived from algal or bacterial remains but could equally have come from more advanced plants such as mosses or grasses . 

    These researchers were careful to deal with two major problems: contamination of the remains, and possible migration of the remains from elsewhere; the last may occur when the material is bituminous.

    Pre-Cambrian anthracite is of particular interest to geologists because it is quite rare.   There was great rock metamorphosis during the pre-Cambrian era;  for carbonaceous compounds, the effects of thermal and/or pressure driven metamorphosis would lead to carbonates or carbon dioxide/monoxide. The likelihood of preservation of organic remains in a carbonaceous form would therefore be low; such remains would probably form carbonates or out-gas as carbon dioxide/monoxide.

    It has been claimed that eukaryotic (nucleus and cell wall) material appeared 2.7 billion years ago (16). However the experimental methodology used in this latter case does not completely preclude contamination and seems to be tentative.

    Problems with the origin and treatment of samples and consequent analytical results have been discussed at length (17); these issues are extremely important in this type of work.

    'Absolute' techniques such as nitrogen 15 nuclear magnetic resonance (18), electron spin resonance and Raman spectroscopy have the potential to become very important in the study of ancient carbonaceous deposits. Such methods can give unambiguous data even in the presence of contaminants. Since many organic molecules polarize light this technique is also used.
2.3   Other Organic Remains.     

    The fossilised remains of what appear to be microbiol mats have been found in several places (19,20). These have been dated back as far as about 3.4 billion years.  They are usually found near hydrothermal vents and in the vicinity of what were (seasonal) pools of water. Stromatolites, see below, are an example. Evidence of fossilised methane and sulphur consuming microbes is also being studied (21).

    It should be noted that there is controversy surrounding the nature of some microbe fossils (10) but there are also clear examples of fossilised mats (19). 

    Claims of biogenic fossils in the Isua rock group are still disputed, basically because these rocks have been so highly metamorphosed (15).

3.   The First Plants.  
    The presence of pre-Cambrian anthracite deposits and microbiol mats shows that vegetation was present on the land in pre-Cambrian times. Much of the evidence would have been destroyed because of the difficult climatic conditions on the early Earth and extensive rock metamorphosis.
So what kind of plants are these likely to have been? They would need to be able to survive in an atmosphere probably containing less oxygen than today, possible extremes of cold and heat, and water supplies that could be anything from fresh to highly saline, still through to fast flowing. Floods and droughts would be additional threats along with higher ultraviolet light levels. 

3.1 Algae  (11) -- These are very simple forms of vegetative life that can live in a number of environments, including both fresh and saline water; probably the best known is blue-green algae, 'pond scum'(6). However this is not; an algae but rather a photosynthesising bacterium (cyanobacteria); see below. True algal forms include euglenoids, which live mostly in fresh water; they are unicellular and usually not more that 0.5 mm in length. There are over 800 different species. The algal division chrysophyta has over 6000 species in its class! They can live in virtually any kind of aqueous environment from fresh, through brackish to salty; some planktons are in this class. Most exist as diatoms, the rest are unicellular; there are both motile and non-motile species. The division pyrrophyta is unicellular and can live in fresh or salty water; phaeophyta is multicellular and includes sea weeds. Chlorophyta, green algae, are even more diverse; there are around 7000 known species. They are uni- and multi-cellular, live in fresh or salt water, in snow, soil, on tree trunks and in symbiosis with other organisms.
3.2 Stromatolites -- These are thought to be formed from cyanobacteria (but this is not completely certain), that is from 'blue-green' algae; this matlike vegetation grows in shallow seawater at the edge of land and also qualifies as 'green' vegetation (22). The mats may date back to over 3 billion years ago (23). The earliest microbiol mats and bio-films are similar to this type. Blue-green algae themselves are termed 'cyanophytes' and are prokaryotic, that is having no nucleus within the cell wall, and are taken to be the simplest form of vegetative life. They can live in fresh water and saline environments -- usually shallow water in ponds, marshes etc. Dating of the earliest stromatolites is complicated by possible abiogenic origins of such structures (10).  Low oxygen environments would facilitate the formation of fossilised mats from such soft biotic material. 
 3.3 Grasses -- These are unusual plants in several respects (24) ; they rely on wind to scatter their seed; they can stand low rainfall and great heat; if burnt they rapidly regenerate through their matted root systems. Their only essential requirement is sufficient light. It seems, therefore, that such plants could have survived and even thrived during the pre-Cambrian period. Because of the organic nature of grasses they do not easily fossilise; conditions would have to be just right in order to preserve any record of them. However they could form a type of soft coal, perhaps similar to lignite, if buried and crushed rapidly and the remains left in an anaerobic environment (similar to carboniferous coal deposits). If such deposits were subsequently metamorphosed in rocks undergoing this process anthracite could well have been produced. Graphite might also have been a product but it is more difficult to ascribe this material only to such processes. Grasses generally pollinate via wind; they do not need insects. They can grow in fresh or slightly saline water (marshes); some need virtually no soil; some have water bound roots and make their food from water and direct fixing of gases from the atmosphere. Such plants could have survived in the Archean atmosphere; recent research suggests that this early atmosphere may also have contained more oxygen than previously thought.  Higher levels of carbon dioxide may also have been present in the early atmosphere; this might have enhanced the growth of grasses (25) 

 3.4 Mosses -- These could also have been extant at this time; they can thrive in difficult, particularly moist, conditions (26). They are one of the most versatile plant types known and can survive extreme cold and heat. They are able to take nutrients directly from water, or directly to their growing tips from soil, and reproduce both asexually and sexually without the assistance of insects; they can survive on virtually no soil. They generally prefer low light levels, and cold and wet conditions. They can live at the bottom of lakes, around hot springs, on rocks and sand dunes; a few are marine.  

3.5 Non-photosynthesing plants -- These are thought to be microbes rather than plants as such. Because fossilised remains are difficult to identify this area of research has made only slow progress to date.
    An overview of the evidence presented above shows that plant life did become established during the pre-Cambrian period, possibly as early as 3.5 billion years ago. As soon as suitable environments were available, following the formation of land, it seems that plant life appeared. This parallels exactly the account in Genesis 1:9-12. The first plants may have included mosses, grasses, and various types of algae. 

    The environments described above, in which these plants could thrive, would only have come about when land rose from the sea; they could not have survived on a globe totally covered in water to any depth. The first green plants were tough and independant; they did not need insects to reproduce and could survive difficult conditions. Thus God's words in Genesis 1:9-12, 'land....[then]...........plants'. Once photosynthesis was under way the scene was set for the arrival of more complex green vegetation such as bushes, trees etc.

    The growing evidence for land, or edge of sea, based pre-Cambrian green vegetation, coupled with more careful study of pre-Cambrian geology, is providing further confirmation of the Genesis creation account. 

* The pre-Cambrian period is divided into the Hadean (4.55-3.90 billion years), Archaean (3.90-2.50 billion years), and the Proterozoic (2.50-0.54 billion years) eras.

1. F H T Rhodes et al., 'Fossils - a Guide to Prehistoric Life', Hamlyn (1972).
2. DHC Wilton, Precambrian Res.,  vol 77, p 131 (1996).
3. A Geikie, 'Text Book of Geology', p 638-39, Macmillan (1882). 
4.  DA Rothery, 'Teach Yourself Geology', Hodder and Stoughton Educational (2003). 
5. R Young, 'Young's Analytical Concordance', Hendrickson.
6. K Edwards and B Rosen, 'From the Beginning', Natural History Museum, London,
7. M Nedachi et al,   Proc. of  Conf. on Earth System Processes, Edinburgh (2001).
8. H Ohmoto et al, idem. 
9.   DJ Des-Marais, idem. 
10. MD Brasier et al, idem.
11.   EO Wilson, 'The Diversity of Life', Belknap Harvard (1992). 
12. T Gold, USGS Professional Paper 1570 (1993).
13. J Parnell, Lunar and Planetary Science, vol 34, p 1119 (2003).
14.   PD Ward et al, 'Rare Earth', Copernicus Books (2004). 
15. MA van Zuilen, Precambrian Res., vol 126, p 331 (2003).
16. JJ Brocks et al, AAAS, vol 285, no. 5430, p1033 (1999).
17. F Westall et al, Precambrian Res., vol 126, p 313 (2003).
18. H Knicker et al, J. Environmental Quality, vol 31, p 444 (2002).
19. Y Watanabe et al,   Proc. of  Conf. on Earth System Processes, Edinburgh (2001).
20. F Westall et al, idem.
21. CH House et al, idem.
22. D Attenborough, 'Life on Earth', BCA, (1980).
23. W Nijman et al, Precambrian Res., vol 95, p 247 (1998).
24. D Attenborough, 'The Living Planet', Collins (1992).
25.   EA Kinsman et al, Plant, Cell, and Environment, vol 20, p 1039 (1997). 
26. DHS Richardson, 'Biology of Mosses', Blackwell Scientific (1981).