There are very few tangible signs that the Earth had continents at the surface before about 4 billion years (Ga) ago. The most cited evidence that they may have existed in the Hadean Eon are zircon grains with radiometric ages up to 4.4 Ga that were recovered from much younger sedimentary rocks in Western Australia. These tiny grains also show isotopic anomalies that support the existence of continental material, i.e. rocks of broadly granitic composition, only 100 Ma after the Earth formed (see: Zircons and early continents no longer to be sneezed at; February 2006). So, how come relics of such early continents have yet to be discovered in the geological record? After all granitic rocks – in the broad sense – which form continents are so less dense than the mantle that modern subduction is incapable of recycling them en masse. Indeed, mantle convection of any type in the hotter Earth of the Hadean seems unlikely to have swallowed continents once they had formed. Perhaps they are hiding in another guise among younger rocks of the continental crust. But, believe me; geologists have been hunting for them, to no avail, in every scrap of existing continental crust since 1971 when gneisses found in West Greenland by New Zealander Vic McGregor turned out to be almost 3.8 Ga old. This set off a grail-quest, which still continues, to negate James Hutton’s ‘No vestige of a beginning …’ concept of geological time.
There is another view. Early continental lithosphere may have returned to the mantle piece by piece by other means. One that has been happening since the Archaean is as debris from surface erosion and its transportation to the ocean floor, thence to be subducted along with denser material of the oceanic lithosphere. Another possibility is that before 4 Ga continental lithosphere had far less strength than characterised it in later times; it may have been continually torn into fragments small enough for viscous drag to defy buoyancy and consign them into the mantle by convective processes. Two things seem to confer strength on continental lithosphere younger than 4 billion years: its depleted surface heat flow and heat-production that stem from low concentrations of radioactive isotopes of uranium, thorium and potassium in the lower crust and sub-continental mantle; bolstering by cratons that form the cores of all major continents. Three geoscientists at Monash University in Victoria, Australia have examined how parts of early convecting mantle may have undergone chemical and thermal differentiation (Capitanio, F.A. et al. 2020. Thermochemical lithosphere differentiation and the origin of cratonic mantle. Nature, v. 588, p. 89-94; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2976-3). These processes are an inevitable outcome of the tendency for mantle melting to begin as it becomes decompressed when pressure decreases when it rises during convection. Continual removal of the magmas produced in this way would remove not only much of the residue’s heat-producing capacity – U, Th and K preferentially enter silicate melts – but also its content of volatiles, especially water. Even if granitic magmas were completely recycled back to the mantle by the greater vigour of the hot, early Earth, at least some of the residue of partial melting would remain. Its dehydration would increase its viscosity (strength). Over time this would build what eventually became the highly viscous thick mantle roots (tectosphere) on which increasing amounts of the granitic magmas could stabilise to establish the oldest cratons. Over time more and more such cratonised crust would accumulate, becoming increasingly unlikely to be resorbed into the mantle. Although cratons are not zoned in terms of the age of their constituent rocks, they do jumble together several billion years’ worth of continental crust in what used to be called ‘the Basement Complex’.
Early in this process, heat would have made much of the lithosphere too weak to form rigid plates and the tectonics with which geologists are so familiar from the later parts of Earth’s history. The evolution that Capitanio et al. propose suggests that the earliest rigid plates were capped by Archaean continental crust. That implies subduction of oceanic lithosphere starting at their margins, with intra-oceanic destructive plate margins and island arcs being a later feature of tectonics. It is in the later, Proterozoic Eon that evidence for accretion of arc terranes becomes obvious, plastering their magmatic products onto cratons, further enlarging the continents.