Were the first metazoan reefs ecologically similar to modern tropical reefs, enabling them to persist under oligotrophic conditions? We tested the hypothesis of ecological similarity by employing a geochemical approach. Petrography, cathodoluminescence, trace elements, and stable isotope analyses of primary precipitates of the Lower Cambrian Ajax Limestone, South Australia, indicate preservation of original C isotopic composition. All primary carbonate components exhibit C isotopic values similar to the composition of inorganically precipitated fibrous marine cements, suggesting that archaeocyaths and the calcimicrobe Epiphyton precipitated skeletal carbonate in equilibrium with ambient seawater in the absence of vital effects. Such data do not support the contention that archaeocyaths possessed photosymbionts. However, a +0.55‰ shift in δ13C occurs in reefs developed under shallower-water conditions relative to deeper reefs. This shift suggests the stratification of primary production in Early Cambrian oceans. The pattern is similar to that seen in the modern ocean, whereby significant photosynthesis modulates the C isotopic composition of the photic zone.