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Stromatolite-like structures within microbially laminated sandstones of the Paleoarchean Moodies Group, Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa

We report abundant small calcareous mounds associated with fossilized kerogenous microbial mats in tidal-facies sandstones of the predominantly siliciclastic Moodies Group (ca. 3.22 Ga) of the Barberton Greenstone Belt (BGB), South Africa and Eswatini. Most of the bulbous, internally microlaminated mounds are several cm in diameter and formed at the sediment-water interface contemporaneous with sedimentation. They originally consisted of Fe-Mg-Mn carbonate which is now largely silicified; subtle internal compositional laminations are composed of organic matter and sericite. Their presence for >6 km along strike, their restriction to the inferred photic zone, and the internal structure suggest that mineral precipitation was induced by photosynthetic microorganisms. Similar calcareous mounds in this unit also occur within and on top of fluid-escape conduits, suggesting that carbonate precipitation may either have occurred abiogenically or involved chemotrophic metabolism(s) utilizing the oxidation of organic matter, methane, or hydrogen, the latter possibly generated by serpentinization of underlying ultramafic rocks. Alternatively or additionally, carbonate may have precipitated abiotically where heated subsurface fluids, sourced by the intrusion of a major Moodies-age sill, reached the tidal flats. In summary, precipitation mechanisms may have been variable; the calcareous mounds may represent “hybrid carbonates” that may have originated from the small-scale overlap of bioinduced and abiotic processes in space and time. Significantly, the widespread occurrence of these stromatolite-like structures in a fully siliciclastic, high-energy tidal setting broadens search criteria in the search for life on Mars while their possible hybrid origin challenges our ability to unambiguously identify a biogenic component.


Christoph Heubeck1, Sebastian Reimann1, Martin Homann2
1Friedrich-Schiller Universität Jena, Germany; 2University College London, London, UK
GeoBerlin 2023
South Africa, Eswatini