The crustal setting of early Archean greenstone belts and whether they formed on or associated with blocks of older continental crust or in more oceanic settings remains a major issue in Archean geology. Here we report detrital zircon U-Pb age data from sandstones of the 3.26–3.20 Ga Fig Tree and Moodies Groups and from 3.47 to 3.23 Ga meteorite impact–related deposits in the 3.55–3.20 Ga Barberton greenstone belt (BGB), South Africa. The provenance signatures of these sediments are characterized by zircon age peaks at 3.54, 3.46, 3.40, 3.30, and 3.25 Ga. These clusters are coincident either with the ages of major episodes of felsic to intermediate igneous activity within and around the belt or with the ages of thin felsic tuffs reflecting distant volcanic activity. Only 15 of the reported 3410 grains (<0.5%) pre-date the age of the oldest rocks in the BGB. The extreme rarity of zircons older than the felsic components of the BGB itself, even after widespread deformation, uplift, and deep erosion of the BGB, implies that an older continental substrate is unlikely to have existed beneath or adjacent to the BGB. Ten of the 15 pre-BGB zircons were recovered from a single meteorite impact–related layer and may have been derived from far beyond the BGB by impact-related processes. The remaining old zircons could represent felsic rocks in older, unexposed parts of the BGB sequence, but are too few to provide evidence for a continental source. This finding offers further evidence that the large, thick, high-standing, highly evolved blocks of continental crust with an andesitic bulk composition that characterize the Earth during younger geologic times were scarce in the early Archean.

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