While the diamonds of this study were found in 3 billion-year-old sedimentary rocks, diamond formation occurred much deeper, within Earth’s mantle. Additionally, based on the nitrogen characteristics of the diamonds, they also formed much earlier, around 3.5 billion years ago.
Transport of the diamonds to the surface of the Earth by kimberlite-like volcanism, followed by their voyage across the ancient Earth surface and into the Witwatersrand basin, occurred between 3.5 and 3 billion years ago.
By using an ion probe to analyse the carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions of the Witwatersrand diamonds, which have been pristinely preserved for more than three billion years, Smart and her team found that plate tectonics was likely in operation on Earth as early as 3.5 billion years ago.
“We can use the carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions of the diamonds to tell us where the source material involved in the formation of the Witwatersrand diamonds over 3 billion years ago came from,” says Smart.
“The nitrogen isotope composition of the Witwatersrand diamonds shown above indicated a sedimentary source (nitrogen derived from the Earth’s surface) and this tells us that the nitrogen incorporated in the Witwatersrand diamonds did not come from the Earth’s mantle, but that it was rather transported from Earth’s surface into the upper mantle through plate tectonics.
This is important because the nitrogen trapped in the Witwatersrand diamonds indicates that plate tectonics, as we recognise it today, was operating on ancient Archaean Earth, and actively transported material at Earth’s surface deep into the mantle.”