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The Kaapvaal Craton (centred on Limpopo Province in South Africa), along with the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia, are the only remaining areas of pristine 3.6–2.5 Ga (billion years ago) crust on Earth. Similarities of rock records from both these cratons, especially of the overlying late Archean sequences, suggest that they were once part of the Vaalbara supercontinent (Zegers et al., 1998).
The Kaapvaal Craton covers an area of approximately 1,200,000 km2 (460,000 sq mi) and is joined to the Zimbabwe Craton to the north by the Limpopo Belt. To the south and west, the Kaapvaal Craton is flanked by Proterozoic orogens, and to the east by the Lebombo monocline that contains Jurassic igneous rocks associated with the break-up of Gondwana.
The Kaapvaal Craton formed and stabilised between 3.7 and 2.6 Ga by the emplacement of major granitoid batholiths that thickened and stabilised the continental crust during the early stages of an arc-related magmatism and sedimentation cycle. The craton is a mixture of early Archean (3.0–3.5 Ga) granite greenstone terranes and older tonalitic gneisses (ca. 3.6–3.7 Ga), intruded by a variety of granitic plutons (3.3–3.0 Ga). Subsequent evolution of the Kaapvaal Craton (3.0–2.7 Ga) is thought to be associated with continent–arc collision that caused an overlaying succession of basins filled with thick sequences of both volcanic and sedimentary rocks. This was then followed by episodic extension and rifting when the Gaborone–Kanye and Ventersdorp sequences were developed. Early Archean crust is well exposed only on the east side of the craton and comprises a collage of subdomains and crustal blocks characterised by distinctive igneous rocks and deformations.
Late Archean metamorphism joined the Southern Marginal Zone of the Kaapvaal Craton to the Northern Marginal Zone of the Zimbabwe Craton approximately 2.8–2.5 Ga by the 250 kilometres (160 mi) wide orogenic Limpopo Belt. The belt is an east-northeast trending zone of granulite facies tectonites that separates the granitoid-greenstone terranes of the Kaapvaal and Zimbabwe cratons.
Limpopo Central Zone
The crustal evolution of the Limpopo Central Zone can be summarised into three main periods: 3.2–2.9 Ga, 2.6 Ga, and 2.0 Ga. The first two periods are characterised by magmatic activity leading to the formation of Archaean tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite (TTG) such as the Sand River Gneisses and the Bulai Granite intrusion. Early Proterozoic high-grade metamorphic conditions produced partial melting that formed large amounts of granitic melt. (Chavagnac et al., 1999).
There is no indication that the Neoarchean to early Paleoproterozoic succession on the craton were sourced from the 2.65–2.70 Ga orogenic event preserved in the Limpopo Metamorphic Complex. However, younger late-Paleoproterozoic red bed successions contain zircons of this time interval as well as many ~2.0 Ga detrital zircons. This implies that the Limpopo Complex together with the Zimbabwe Craton only became attached to the Kaapvaal Craton at approximately 2.0 Ga during formation of the Magondi Mobile Belt which in turn sourced the voluminous late Paleoproterozoic red beds of southern Africa. (Beukes et al., 2004). Evidence of the horizontal layering and riverine erosion can be found throughout the Waterberg Massif within the Limpopo Central Zone.
Barberton greenstone belt
The Barberton greenstone belt, also known as the Makhonjwa Mountains, is situated on the eastern edge of Kaapvaal Craton. It is well known for its gold mineralisation and for its komatiites, an unusual type of ultramafic volcanic rock named after the Komati River that flows through the belt. Some of the oldest exposed rocks on Earth (greater than 3.6 Ga) are located in the Barberton greenstone belt of the Swaziland–Barberton areas and these contain some of the oldest traces of life on earth. Only the rocks found in the Isua greenstone belt of Western Greenland are older.
In April 2014, scientists reported finding evidence of the largest terrestrial meteor impact event to date near the Barberton Greenstone Belt. They estimated the impact occurred about 3.26 billion years ago (during the Paleoarchean period of the Archean eon of the Precambrian supereon) and that the impactor was approximately 37 and 58 kilometers (23 to 36 miles) wide. The crater from this event, if it still exists, has not yet been found.
The Barberton greenstone belt consists of a sequence of mafic to ultramafic lavas and metasedimentary rocks emplaced and deposited between 3.5 and 3.2 Ga. The granitoid rocks were emplaced over a 500-million-year time span and can be divided into two suites: The tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite (TTG) suite (emplaced approximately 3.5–3.2 Ga), and the granite-monzogranite-syenitegranite (GMS) suite (emplaced approximately 3.2–3.1 Ga). The GMS suite are found over large parts of the Kaapvaal Craton and their emplacement coincides with the first stabilisation of the central parts of the craton. "The GMS suite in the Barberton granite-greenstone terrane shows very different internal and external characteristics from the earlier TTG suite. Individual plutons may cover several thousand square kilometres and these composite granitoid bodies have traditionally been referred to as batholiths, alluding to their compositionally and texturally heterogeneous nature and enormous areal extent. For the most part, the plutons appear undeformed." (Westraat et al., 2005).
The Barberton area underwent two tectonic episodes of terrane accretion at about 3.5 and 3.2 Ga. Early stages of shield development are exposed in the Barberton Mountains where the continent formation first took place by magmatic accretion and tectonic amalgamation of small protocontinental blocks. Several small diachronous blocks (3.6–3.2 Ga) have been found in the area. Apparently each block represents a cycle of arc-related magmatism and sedimentation. The Hooggenoeg Formation of the Barberton greenstone belt is dated at 3.45 Ga. and evolved through magmatism. This crustal development phase was followed by a period of Mesoarchaean cratonic magmatism (3.1–3.0 Ga) and is marked by the formation of a large crescent-shaped, juvenile arc that was accreted onto the northern and western margins of the evolving Kaapvaal shield. Archaean greenstone belts are hypothesized to have been formed from passive margin oceanic crust that became part of an extensive subduction-undercut margin. The TTG intrusions are thought to have been formed by post-subduction magmatism when subduction was halted, perhaps by arrival of a micro-craton.
The 3.1 Ga Mpuluzi batholith in the Barberton granite–gneiss terrane is made up of granite sheets. The structurally higher parts are underlain by an anastomosing network of steeply dipping, variably deformed dikes and sheets. According to a study done by Westraat et al. (2005): "Multiple intrusive relationships and geochronological evidence suggests that granite sheeting and the assembly of the pluton occurred over a period of 3–13 million years. The spatial and temporal relationship between deformation and magma emplacement reflects episodes of incremental dilation related to deformation along the bounding shear zones and granite sheeting. The transition to the mainly subhorizontal granite sheets at higher structural levels of the tabular Mpuluzi batholith indicates the intrusion of the granites during subhorizontal regional shortening, where the reorientation of the minimum normal stress to vertical attitudes at the shallow levels of emplacement allowed for vertical dilation and subhorizontal emplacement of the granite sheets."
Barberton greenstone belt TTG and GMS suites
The Barberton Mountain is a well preserved pre-3.0 Ga granite-greenstone terrane. The greenstone belt consists of a sequence of mafic to ultramafic lavas and metasedimentary rocks emplaced and deposited between 3.5 and 3.2 Ga. The granitoid rocks were emplaced over a 500 million year time span and can be divided into two suites. The TTG suite (emplaced approximately 3.5–3.2 Ga) contains tonalites, trondhjemites and granodiorites; and the GMS suite (emplaced approximately 3.2–3.1 Ga) includes granites, monzogranites and a small syenite-granite complex.
According to a study by Yearron et al. (2003): "The TTGs are typically low- to medium-K, metaluminous I-type granites, Their chondrite-normalised REE patterns show two trends. The majority of plutons are LREE-enriched, HREE-depleted and with small or no Eu anomalies, whilst the Steynsdorp and Doornhoek plutons are relatively HREE-undepleted with significant Eu anomalies. Nd isotope analyses show that the 3.4 Ga TTGs have positive εNd values (0 to +3.7), indicative of depleted-mantle sources, similar to the oldest greenstone belt formations (the Onverwacht). In contrast, the 3.2 Ga TTGs have negative εNd, suggesting crustal or enriched-mantle input into the magmas.
Extensive granite plutons of a subsequent magmatic episode are associated with the intrusion of vast amounts of granodiorite-monzogranite-syenite GMS suites. The GMS rocks are medium- and high-K metaluminous I-typerocks. They display two dominant REE patterns. Medium-K GMS rocks (the Dalmeinand portions of Heerenveen) are LREE-enriched, HREE-depleted and have no Eu-anomalies, whereas, the high-K GMSs (Heerenveen, Mpuluzi and Boesmanskop) are relatively HREE-enriched with negative Eu anomalies. Positive and negative εNd values (−4.4 to +4.8) for the Boesmanskop Syenite suggests depleted-mantle and crystal signatures. The εNd and REE patterns, in particular, provide insights into the compositions of potential source rocks and restites for the TTG and GMS suites.
Since HREEs and Eu are readily accommodated in garnet and plagioclase, respectively, their depletion suggests the presence of these minerals in the restite. For the TTG suite, we therefore suggest a garnet-rich amphibolitic or eclogitic depleted-mantle source at a depth >40 km. This has been confirmed by experimental work constraining the stability of garnet in the trondhjemite compositions, and at magmatic temperatures, to a pressure of 15.24 ± 0.5 kbar corresponding to a depth of 54.9 ± 1.8 km. In contrast, the GMS suite most probably had a plagioclase-rich, garnet-poor source that may be a mixture of depleted-mantle and crustal materials.
The two episodes of terrane accretion at ∼3.5 and 3.2 Ga correspond to ages of TTG magmatism. This compressional tectonic regime, and the partial melting of greenstone-type material, suggest that basaltic amphibolites of the greenstone sequences are the source materials for the TTG suites. The likely source rocks for the GMS suite are not easily deduced, but chemistry and εNd values of the Boesmanskop syenite suggest a hybrid mantle-crustal source. This type of hybrid source might also explain the features of the monzogranitic batholiths. Close associations between syenite and monzogranites are common, particularly in post-orogenic extensional/transtensional settings. Although extensional activity has not been documented in Barberton, ∼3.1 Ga strike-slip activity has. A post-orogenic thinning of the crust might explain the production of large voluminous monzogranite batholiths and the passive nature of their intrusion dynamics." (Yearron et al., 2003).
Hooggenoeg Formation of the Barberton greenstone belt
Some controversy exists pertaining to the origin and emplacement of Archaean felsic suites. According to a dissertation by Louzada (2003): "The upper part of the Hooggenoeg Formation is characterized by ultramafic massive and pillow lavas, a trondhjemitic suite of silicified felsic intrusive and flow banded rocks, and sedimentary chert beds. Veins of felsic, chert and ultramafic material intrude the belt. The depositional environment is thought to be a shoaling shallow sea in which the Hooggenoeg Formation has been deposited in a west-block down, listric faulted, synsedimentary setting."
The Hooggenoeg Formation felsic rocks can be divided into two groups: an intrusive group of interlocking and shallow intrusive rocks, and a porphyritic group of rocks from the veins. Lavas from the upper part of the felsic unit are too altered to be assigned to one of these groups. The intrusive group is related to the tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite TTG-suite Stolzburg Pluton, which intruded along the southern margin of the Barberton greenstone belt. Melting of an amphibolite quartz eclogite has been suggested as a probable origin for these high-Al2O3 felsic magmas. Ultramafic rocks of the Hooggenoeg Formation were most likely not parental for the felsic rocks. Subduction processes may have played a role in the generation of the felsic rocks, but a tectonic setting for the ultramafic rocks remains uncertain. The felsic units of the Hooggenoeg Formation are very similar to those of the Panorama Formation of the Early Archaean Coppin Gap greenstone belt of Western Australia (See Yilgarn craton). Similarities in geological setting, petrography, and geochemical (trace element in particular) characteristics suggest a possible genetic relation between the two formations and support the theory that a combined continent Vaalbara existed ~3.45 Ga..
The Archaean Johannesburg Dome is located in the central part of the Kaapvaal Craton and consists of trondhjemitic and tonalitic granitic rocks intruded into mafic-ultramafic greenstone. Studies using U-Pb single zircon dating for granitoid samples yield an age of 3340 +/- 3 Ma and represents the oldest granitoid phase recognised so far. "Following the trondhjemite-tonalite gneiss emplacement a further period of magmatism took place on the dome, which resulted in the intrusion of mafic dykes that are manifest as hornblende amphibolites. The age of these dykes has yet to be determined quantitatively, but they fall within the time constraints imposed by the age of the trondhjemitic gneisses (3340–3200 Ma) and later, crosscutting, potassic granitoids.
These rocks consisting mainly of granodiorites constitute the third magmatic event and occupy an area of batholithic dimensions extending across most of the southern portion of the dome. The southern and southeastern parts of the batholith consist mainly of medium-grained, homogeneous, grey granodiorites dated at 3121 +/- 5 Ma....The data, combined with that from other parts of the Kaapvaal craton, further supports the view that the evolution of the craton was long-lived and episodic, and that it grew by accretionary processes, becoming generally younger to the north and west of the ca. 3.5 Ga Barberton-Swaziland granite-greenstone terrane situated in the southeastern part of the craton." (Poujol and Anheusser, 2001).
- “Scientists reconstruct ancient impact that dwarfs dinosaur-extinction blast”, American Geophysical Union, April 9, 2014
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