We addressed when plate-tectonic processes first started on Earth by examining the ca. 2.0 Ga Limpopo orogenic belt in southern Africa. We show through palinspastic reconstruction that the Limpopo orogen originated from >600 km of west-directed thrusting, and the thrust sheet was subsequently folded by north-south compression. The common 2.7–2.6 Ga felsic plutons in the Limpopo thrust sheet and the absence of an arc immediately predating the 2.0 Ga Limpopo thrusting require the Limpopo belt to be an intracontinental structure. The similar duration (~40 m.y.), slip magnitude (>600 km), slip rate (>15 mm/yr), tectonic setting (intracontinental), and widespread anatexis to those of the Himalayan orogen lead us to propose the Limpopo belt to have developed by continent-continent collision. Specifically, the combined Zimbabwe-Kaapvaal craton (ZKC, named in this study) in the west (present coordinates) was subducting eastward below an outboard craton (OC), which carried an arc equivalent to the Gangdese batholith in southern Tibet prior to the India-Asia collision. The ZKC-OC collision at ca. 2.0 Ga triggered a westward jump in the plate convergence boundary, from the initial suture zone to the Limpopo thrust within the ZKC. Subsequent thrusting accommodated >600 km of plate convergence, possibly driven by ridge push from the west side of the ZKC. As intracontinental plate convergence is a key modern plate-tectonic process, the development of the Limpopo belt implies that the operation of plate tectonics, at least at a local scale, was ongoing by ca. 2.0 Ga on Earth.

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