Scientists Discover That 40 Percent of the World's Gold is 3 Billion Years Old

Lori Stiles
Sept. 10, 2002

Scientists have for the first time directly dated gold from South Africa's Witwatersrand gold deposits, source of more than 40 percent of all gold so far mined on Earth.

An international team of geologists led by the University of Arizona has discovered that the gold is around 3 billion years old – older than its surrounding conglomerate rock by a quarter of a billion years.

More, their state-of–the-art dating technique shows that the gold deposits formed along with crustal rock directly from the mantle beneath South Africa. The event at this magnitude appears to be unique in Earth's geologic history.

Jason Kirk, Joaquin Ruiz and John Chesley of the UA, John Walshe of Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, and Gavin England of the University of Edinburgh report on it in the Sept. 13 issue of Science.

The Witwatersrand gold is found in a sedimentary basin. But the age and origin of the gold has been hotly debated. One theory argues that the gold was carried into the basin by sedimentary processes. A conflicting theory holds that the gold was emplaced by hydrothermal fluids – the equivalent of hot springs – from the upper continental crust.

The new results confirm that the Witwatersrand gold deposits are "placer" deposits – that millions of years ago, ancient rivers carried gold particles, along with sand and silt, into the Witerwatersrand basin – then a great lake – possibly from granite mountains to the north and southwest. Over time and under pressure, the gold-bearing sediments solidified into rock, forming the rich gold-bearing reefs of South Africa's 'golden arc,' which have been mined since their discovery in 1886.

The UA scientists' new findings confirm that the gold first formed in older rocks, rocks that formed when upwelling mantle formed a major piece of South African continental crust called the Kaapvaal craton. Cratons are areas of Earth's crust that have remained tectonically stable over time. The Kaapvaal craton is one of the oldest known.

Later, the gold was weathered and reconcentrated in the Witwatersrand paleolake sediments.

Kirk is studying the age and extent of gold deposits around the world for a UA doctoral geosciences degree. He uses a rhenium-osmium isotope gold-dating technique developed by Ruiz at the university's NTIMS laboratory.

Ruiz, dean of the UA College of Science and professor of geosciences, was instrumental in developing the Negative Thermal Ionization Mass Spectrometer (NTIMS) with a grant from the W. M. Keck Foundation. The laboratory is one of the few of its kind in the world.

"This is precisely the kind of research that I envisioned when I was building the laboratory," Ruiz said. "The analytical capabilities of the W.M. Keck Laboratory is such that we will continue to discover aspects of how the Earth worked, questions that previously we could only dream of."

Gold and other minerals contain a rare metallic chemical element called rhenium. Rhenium-187 is the radioactive form of the element. NTIMS directly dates minerals by counting the number of their rhenium-187 and osmium-187 atoms. Rhenium-187 has a half -life of 45 billion years, or about 10 times the age of our solar system. It decays into osmium-187. So by determining the ratio of radioactive rhenium-187 to daughter osmium-187 atoms, scientists can directly calculate when the minerals formed.

"One of the reasons I think our results are so significant is that the rhenium-osmium system can be used directly on gold, and can also tell us if the gold came from the mantle or the crust," Kirk said.

There is relatively more rhenium than osmium in Earth's crust, but relatively more osmium than rhenium in Earth's mantle.

"Witwatersrand has a clear mantle signature," Kirk said. "It's possible that this mantle signature is so big because at 3 billion years ago, Earth's mantle might have been hotter, and richer in gold at this particular spot, compared to more recent deposits."

People, understandably, are keenly interested in why South Africa has been so blessed with gold. The Witwatersrand gold fields have yielded a half-trillion dollars' worth of gold since 1886.

"Estimates are that there's another half-trillion dollars in gold still to be mined, and that's a lot of money," Kirk said.