Popular Science

A new finding raises an old question: Where and when did life begin?

Geologists are analyzing ancient clues to tell our origin story.

The rock is a deep rusty red, shot through with gray stripes. It rises above shrubby tundra, part of a hummocky terrain that slopes down to the Hudson Bay in northern Quebec, as it has for a very long time—maybe almost as long as the planet itself. This is a rare spot on Earth, one of a few where rocks this old survive. Plate tectonics and the relentless recycling of crust have repeatedly chewed up our planet’s surface. Only a few zones in deep continental interiors have escaped this fate, in places like Greenland and Western Australia. Scientists who specialize in finding signs of the origins of life make pilgrimages to these primeval sites. Life wrote its first chapters in these rocks. And scientists hope to read them.


Canadian geologist Dominic Papineau schemed for years to ­visit this lonely place, known as the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt.

John Kuhen

Canadian geologist Dominic Papineau schemed for years to ­visit this lonely place, known as the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt. In 2008, he finally rounded up a couple thousand dollars in funding and set out from the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., journeying through three layovers and a final leg on a bush plane. If you like rocks—and don’t mind mosquitoes—it’s a great place to ­ramble for a couple of weeks in the summer. A lichen-flecked stony expanse, polished by glaciers, juts through the thin soil.

Papineau pitched his tent near a creek. At that time of year, at these latitudes, the sun rises at 4 a.m., giving him many hours to explore. Three days before he was due to leave, Papineau found a 20- or 30-yard-long strike, part of a banded iron formation: reddish hematite layered with dark magnetite, like a red-and-gray napoleon. It had formed not too

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