Journal of Earth Science

, Volume 29, Issue 6, pp 1291–1303 | Cite as

Geological Evidence for the Operation of Plate Tectonics throughout the Archean: Records from Archean Paleo-Plate Boundaries

  • Timothy M. KuskyEmail author
  • Brian F. Windley
  • Ali Polat
Open Access
Invited Review


Plate tectonics describes the horizontal motion of rigid lithospheric plates away from midoceanic ridges and parallel to transforms, towards deep-sea trenches, where the oceanic lithosphere is subducted into the mantle. This process is the surface expression of modern-day heat loss from Earth. One of the biggest questions in Geosciences today is “when did plate tectonics begin on Earth” with a wide range of theories based on an equally diverse set of constraints from geology, geochemistry, numerical modeling, or pure speculation. In this contribution, we turn the coin over and ask “when was the last appearance in the geological record for which there is proof that plate tectonics did not operate on the planet as it does today”. We apply the laws of uniformitarianism to the rock record to ask how far back in time is the geologic record consistent with presently-operating kinematics of plate motion, before which some other mechanisms of planetary heat loss may have been in operation. Some have suggested that evidence shows that there was no plate tectonics before 800 Ma ago, others sometime before 1.8–2.7 Ga, or before 2.7 Ga. Still others recognize evidence for plate tectonics as early as 3.0 Ga, 3.3–3.5 Ga, the age of the oldest rocks, or in the Hadean before 4.3 Ga. A key undiscussed question is: why is there such a diversity of opinion about the age at which plate tectonics can be shown to not have operated, and what criteria are the different research groups using to define plate tectonics, and to recognize evidence of plate tectonics in very old rocks? Here, we present and evaluate data from the rock record, constrained by relevant geochemical-isotopic data, and conclude that the evidence shows indubitably that plate tectonics has been operating at least since the formation of the oldest rocks, albeit with some differences in processes, compositions, and products in earlier times of higher heat generation and mantle temperature, weaker oceanic lithosphere, hotter subduction zones caused by more slab-melt generation, and under different biological and atmospheric conditions.

Key words

Archean tectonics ophiolite OPS (oceanic plate stratigraphy) orogeny 



This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Nos. 91755213, 41672212, 41572203), the MOST Special Fund (No. MSFGPMR02-3) and the Opening Fund (Nos. GPMR201607, 201701) of the State Key Laboratory of Geological Processes and Mineral Resources, China University of Geosciences (Wuhan). Miss Yating Zhong is thanked for assistance with final manuscript preparation and figure drafting. We dedicate this contribution to the memory of Kevin Burke, for his lifelong contribution to Precambrian tectonics. The final publication is available at Springer via

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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.State Key Laboratory for Geological Processes and Mineral ResourcesChina University of GeosciencesWuhanChina
  2. 2.Center for Global Tectonics, School of Earth SciencesChina University of GeosciencesWuhanChina
  3. 3.Department of GeologyUniversity of LeicesterLeicesterUK
  4. 4.Department of Earth and Environmental SciencesUniversity of WindsorOntarioCanada

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