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Barberton Drilling Project: Peering into the Cradle of Life



Barberton Drilling ProjectThe Barberton Greenstone Belt in South Africa is one of the best-preserved successions of mid-Archean (3.5-3.2 Ga) supracrustal rocks in the world, and, as such, it is a remarkable natural laboratory where conditions and processes at the surface of the Archean Earth can be studied in detail. Despite generally good outcrop, nowhere in the Barberton belt are complete field sections preserved, and crucial features such as the contacts of lava flows and continuous successions of critical sedimentary rock sequences are not exposed. Only through diamond drilling will it be possible to obtain the continuous sections and relatively unaltered samples through the volcano-sedimentary successions. Two main targets have been identified.

  1. Sedimentary sequences, which will provide information about erosion and sedimentation on the early Earth, the composition and temperature of Archean seawater, and one possible site where life may have emerged and evolved. Study of tidal sequences will provide information about the dynamics of the Earth-Moon system, and the investigation of spherule layers (including impact debris) provide information about the nature and magnitude of meteorite impacts on the early Earth.
  2. Successions of ultramafic to felsic volcanic rocks, which will provide new insights into volcanic processes, dynamics of the crust and mantle, interaction between oceanic volcanic crust and the hydrosphere and biosphere. The sources of hydrothermal fluids on the ocean floor, driven by circulation of seawater through the volcanic pile, constitute a second habitat of early life.

The project is supported by scientists from 13 countries in five continents and by the mineral exploration industry. The choice of targets, drilling strategies and scientific goals were discussed in detail during planning meetings held in Johannesburg (October 2006), San Francisco (December 2006), Berlin (March 2007), Vienna (April 2008) and during a one-week field conference in the Barberton belt in September 2007. The drilling of a series of shallow (150 to 800m) holes is planned for August 2010 and drill core will be available for distribution six months later.

The drilling will be conducted using a standard rig and conventional technology under the supervision of experienced geologists from South African universities and mineral exploration companies. Local logistics will be handled by local geologists in cooperation with staff from the South African Council for Geoscience. The distribution of samples and post-drilling research will be coordinated by a steering committee comprising representatives from all major participating countries.



Africa, South Africa, Barberton



25° 54' 25'' S, 31° 6' 19'' E (Please scroll down to end of page for more information.)


Project Start and End

In continuous drilling operations since July 2011 after delay due to missing drilling permits.


Programs and Funding


Principal Investigators
  • Nicholas T. Arndt, Université Joseph Fourier de Grenoble, Institut des Sciences de la Terre, Tectonique, Reliefs et Bassins
  • Paul R.D. Mason, University of Utrecht, Faculty of Geosciences, Department of Earth Sciences, Earth Interior
  • Michael Bau, Jacobs University Bremen, School of Engineering and Science, Earth and Environmental Sciences Program
  • Allan Wilson, University of the Witwatersrand, School of Geosciences
  • Axel Hofmann, University of Johannesburg, Department of Geology
  • Gary Byerly, Louisiana State University, College of Science, Department of Geology and Geophysics


Partners and Contractors



Africa, Archean, BARBERTON, Barberton Cradle Of Life, BARBERTON_C, Composition Of Ocean And Atmosphere, Habitat Of Early Life, ICDP-2009/01, Komatiite, Sediment, South Africa, Surface Processes, Volcanic


Current State






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