Desert varnish, a widespread black manganese-rich rock coating, contains labile organic compounds, but a mechanism for its formation and for their preservation remains unproven. Using Raman spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, and scanning transmission electron microscopy, we analyzed varnish and found amorphous hydrated silica (opal) and the silica mineral moganite, similar to findings we have reported from siliceous hot-spring deposits. We suggest that the slow dissolution of silica from anhydrous and hydrous minerals, and its subsequent gelling, condensation, and hardening, provides a simple explanation of a formation mechanism for desert varnish and silica glazes and the incorporation of organic material from local environments. These chemical signatures, sequestered in silica, provide valuable information about terrestrial and extraterrestrial paleoenvironments.

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