Australia and Greenland – it’s hard to imagine two countries that are more different. However together they recently made front-page news around the world, with a discovery that is set to rewrite the textbooks.
The discovery saw a team of Australian scientists uncover the oldest known fossils on earth in the rugged mountains of Greenland. Ironically before this find, the oldest known fossils on earth were located in Australia’s own Pilbara region.
Located in the Isua Supercrustal Belt in south-west Greenland, the fossilised bacteria was found in rocks dating back to between 3.7 and 3.68 million years old. This makes the fossils 220 million years older than all previous discoveries and suggests that they are evidence of the earliest recognised life on earth.
For several decades Professor Allen Nutman from the University of Wollongong and Professor Martin Van Kranendock from the University of New South Wales, along with a team of scientists, have been mapping and exploring rocks in this region. However the breakthrough came when melting ice revealed a previously unseen outcrop of rocks.
With his knowledge and experience of the region, Professor Nutman immediately recognised the tell-tale signs of stromatolites – which are ancient bacterial communities. The bacteria causes irregular, rough bumps in the surface of the rock, which to the trained eye indicates the presence of bacteria – the earliest known life on the planet.
The discovery has also raised the possibility that life may have existed on other planets such as Mars 3.7 million years ago, when it also had life-sustaining water.