The Ediacara Biota, Earth’s earliest fossilized ecosystem of complex, macroscopic, multicellular organisms, occurs in terminal Ediacaran strata worldwide, yet how the fossils are preserved remains controversial. Ediacara assemblages consist of exceptionally preserved soft-bodied forms of enigmatic morphology and phylogenetic affinity. Many of these fossil assemblages are anactualistically preserved as casts and molds in sandstones (“Ediacara-style” preservation). Here we present evidence from the Ediacara Member of South Australia that Ediacara-style preservation was due to rapid, early-stage precipitation of silica cements, facilitated by the high silica saturation state of the oceans prior to the appearance of prolific silica biomineralizers. An early silicification model provides a coherent, mechanistic and empirically supported explanation for the widespread preservation of soft-bodied organisms of Ediacaran–early Paleozoic age as sandstone casts and molds. The prevalence of early silicification confirms that Ediacara-style fossil assemblages can provide an accurate window into life on the Ediacaran seafloor that can be used to reconstruct critical steps in the development and diversification of early animal ecosystems.

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