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The Oldest Rocks on Earth

One team of scientists thinks ancient rocks discovered in northern Canada give us a window onto the planet's infancy and the birth of life itself. Another team thinks they're not that special

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The Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt doesn't look like a battlefield. It lies in peaceful, roadless isolation along the northeastern edge of Hudson Bay in Canada, more than 20 miles from Inukjuak, the nearest human settlement. From the shoreline, the open ground swells into low hills, some covered by lichens, some scraped bare by Ice Age glaciers. The exposed rocks are beautiful in their stretched and folded complexity. Some are gray and black, shot through with light veins. Others are pinkish, sprinkled with garnets. For most of the year the only visitors here are caribou and mosquitoes.

But this tranquil site is indeed a battleground—a scientific one. For almost a decade rival teams of geologists have traveled to Inukjuak, where they have loaded canoes with camping gear and laboratory equipment and trekked along the coast of the bay to the belt itself. Their goal: to prove just how old the rocks are. One team, headed by University of Colorado geologist Stephen J. Mojzsis, is certain that the age is 3.8 billion years. That is pretty ancient, though not record setting.

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