Abstract

Both the Indus River and the Witwatersrand basin contain sand with grains of detrital uraninite. Because this mineral is easily oxidized, its presence in Archean strata as a detrital particle has been used as evidence for a low-oxygen atmosphere before 2.5 Ga. However, its presence in modern sand from the Indus River system has been used to argue that detrital uraninite does not provide information about the oxygen concentration of Earth's early atmosphere. Petrographic and chemical study of sand from these two sources reveals differences that suggest the modern Indus sand cannot be used as an analog for the Archean Witwatersrand occurrences. The Witwatersrand quartzites are depleted in Ca, Mg, and Na, indicating that the original sand from which they formed had been subjected to intense weathering. The chemical index of alteration (CIA), a commonly used indicator of degree of weathering, yields an average value of about 0.80 for Witwatersrand quartzites, comparable to modern tropical streams such as the Orinoco that drain deeply weathered terrains under tropical conditions (CIA = 0.75). In contrast, the CIA for Indus sand is 0.45, indicating virtually no chemical weathering. The significance of Archean quartz-pebble conglomerates is not just that they contain unstable detrital phases like uraninite and pyrite, but that these particles are associated with rocks whose compositions suggest intense weathering. These conglomerates must have been subjected to intense weathering under tropical conditions, either in their source area or at the site of deposition, and the preservation of minerals like uraninite under such conditions isindeed strong evidence for a low-oxygen atmosphere.

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