History of the Earth

History of the Earth
Geological time put in a diagram called a geological clock, showing the relative lengths of the eons of the Earth's history

The history of the Earth describes the most important events and fundamental stages in the development of the planet Earth from its formation 4.578 billion years ago to the present day.[1] Nearly all branches of natural science have contributed to the understanding of the main events of the Earth's past. The age of Earth is approximately one-third of the age of the universe.[2] An immense amount of geological and biological change has occurred in that time span.

Earth formed around 4.578 billion years ago by accretion from the solar nebula. Volcanic outgassing likely created the primordial atmosphere, but it contained almost no oxygen and would have been toxic to humans and most modern life. Much of the Earth was molten because of extreme volcanism and frequent collisions with other bodies. One very large collision is thought to have been responsible for tilting the Earth at an angle and forming the Moon. Over time, such cosmic bombardments ceased, allowing our planet to cool and form a solid crust. Water that was brought here by comets and asteroids condensed into clouds and the oceans took shape. Earth was finally hospitable to life, and the earliest forms that arose enriched the atmosphere with oxygen. Life on Earth remained small and microscopic for at least a billion years. Then, during the Cambrian period of the Phanerozoic eon, it experienced a rapid diversification into many of its modern forms.

Biological and geological change has been constantly occurring on our planet since the time of its formation. Organisms continuously evolve, taking on new forms or going extinct in response to an ever-changing planet. The process of plate tectonics has played a major role in the shaping of Earth's oceans and continents, as well as the life they harbor. The biosphere, in turn, has had a significant effect on the atmosphere and other abiotic conditions on the planet, such as the formation of the ozone layer, the proliferation of oxygen, and the creation of soil. Though humans are unable to perceive it due to their relatively brief life spans, this change is ongoing and will continue for the next few billion years.


4.6 Ga: Solar System

An artist's rendering of a protoplanetary disk

The Solar System (including the Earth) formed from a large, rotating cloud of interstellar dust and gas called the solar nebula, orbiting the Milky Way's galactic center. It was composed of hydrogen and helium created shortly after the Big Bang 13.7 Ga (gigaannum, a unit of time equal to 109 years, or one billion years) and heavier elements ejected by supernovas.[3] About 4.6 Ga, the solar nebula began to contract, possibly due to the shock wave of a nearby supernova. Such a shock wave would have also caused the nebula to rotate and gain angular momentum. As the cloud began to accelerate its rotation, gravity and inertia flattened it into a protoplanetary disk oriented perpendicularly to its axis of rotation. Most of the mass concentrated in the middle and began to heat up, but small perturbations due to collisions and the angular momentum of other large debris created the means by which protoplanets up to several kilometres in length began to form, orbiting the nebular center.

The infall of material, increase in rotational speed and the crush of gravity created an enormous amount of kinetic energy at the center. Its inability to transfer that energy away through any other process at a rate capable of relieving the build-up resulted in the disk's center heating up. Ultimately, nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium began, and eventually, after contraction, a T Tauri star ignited to create the Sun. Meanwhile, as gravity caused matter to condense around the previously perturbed objects outside the gravitational grasp of the new sun, dust particles and the rest of the protoplanetary disk began separating into rings. Successively larger fragments collided with one another and became larger objects, ultimately becoming protoplanets.[4] These included one collection about 150 million kilometers from the center: Earth. The planet formed about 4.54 billion years ago (within an uncertainty of 1%)[1] and was largely completed within 10–20 million years.[5] The solar wind of the newly formed T Tauri star cleared out most of the material in the disk that had not already condensed into larger bodies.

Computer simulations have shown that planets with distances equal to the terrestrial planets in our solar system can be created from a protoplanetary disk.[6] The now widely accepted nebular hypothesis suggests that the same process, which gave rise to the solar system's planets, produces accretion disks around virtually all newly forming stars in the universe, some of which yield planets.[7]

Origin of the Earth's core and first atmosphere

The Proto-Earth grew by accretion, until the inner part of the protoplanet was hot enough to melt the heavy, siderophile metals. Such liquid metals, with now higher densities, began to sink to the Earth's center of mass. This so called iron catastrophe resulted in the separation of a primitive mantle and a (metallic) core only 10 million years after the Earth began to form, producing the layered structure of Earth and setting up the formation of Earth's magnetic field.

During the accretion of material to the protoplanet, a cloud of gaseous silica must have surrounded the Earth, to condense afterwards as solid rocks on the surface. What was left surrounding the planet was an early atmosphere of light (atmophile) elements from the solar nebula, mostly hydrogen and helium, but the solar wind and Earth's heat would have driven off this atmosphere.

This changed when Earth accreted to about 40% its present radius, and gravitational attraction retained an atmosphere which included water.

4.54 Ga: Hadean and Archaean eons

Starting with the Earth's formation by accretion from the solar nebula 4.54 billion years ago (4.54 Ga),[1] the first eon in the Earth's history is called the Hadean.[8] It lasted until the Archaean eon, which began 3.8 Ga. The oldest rocks found on Earth date to about 4.0 Ga, and the oldest detrital zircon crystals in some rocks have been dated to about 4.4 Ga,[9] close to the formation of the Earth's crust and the Earth itself. Because not much material from this time is preserved, little is known about Hadean times, but scientists hypothesize at an estimated 4.53 Ga,[nb 1] shortly after formation of an initial crust, the proto-Earth was impacted by a smaller protoplanet, which ejected part of the mantle and crust into space and created the Moon.[11][12][13]

During the Hadean, the Earth's surface was under a continuous bombardment by meteorites, and volcanism must have been severe due to the large heat flow and geothermal gradient. The detrital zircon crystals dated to 4.4 Ga show evidence of having undergone contact with liquid water, suggesting that the planet already had oceans or seas at that time.[9] From crater counts on other celestial bodies it is inferred that a period of intense meteorite impacts, called the "Late Heavy Bombardment", began about 4.1 Ga, and concluded around 3.8 Ga, at the end of the Hadean.[14]

By the beginning of the Archaean, the Earth had cooled significantly. It would have been impossible for most present day life forms to exist due to the composition of the Archaean atmosphere, which lacked oxygen and an ozone layer. Nevertheless it is believed that primordial life began to evolve by the early Archaean, with some possible fossil finds dated to around 3.5 Ga.[15] Some researchers, however, speculate that life could have begun during the early Hadean, as far back as 4.4 Ga, surviving the possible Late Heavy Bombardment period in hydrothermal vents below the Earth's surface.[16]

4.52 Ga: The giant impact hypothesis

Main articles: Origin and evolution of the Moon and Giant impact hypothesis
Artist's impression of the enormous collision that likely formed the Moon

The Earth's relatively large natural satellite, the Moon, is unique.[nb 2] During the Apollo program, rocks from the Moon's surface were brought to Earth. Radiometric dating of these rocks has shown the Moon to be 4527 ± 10 million years old,[17] about 30 to 55 million years younger than other bodies in the solar system.[18] (New evidence suggests the Moon formed even later, 4.48±0.02 Ga, or 70–110 Ma after the start of the Solar System.[10]) Another notable feature is the relatively low density of the Moon, which must mean it does not have a large metallic core, like all other terrestrial bodies in the solar system. The Moon has a bulk composition closely resembling the Earth's mantle and crust together, without the Earth's core. This has led to the giant impact hypothesis, the idea that the Moon was formed during a giant impact of the proto-Earth with another protoplanet by accretion of the material blown off the mantles of the proto-Earth and impactor.[19][13]

The impactor, sometimes named Theia, is thought to have been a little smaller than the current planet Mars. It could have formed by accretion of matter about 150 million kilometres from the Sun and Earth, at their fourth or fifth Lagrangian point. Its orbit may have been stable at first, but destabilized as Theia's mass increased due to the accretion of matter. Theia oscillated in larger and larger orbits around the Lagrangian point until it finally collided with Earth about 4.533 Ga.[12][nb 1] Models reveal that when an impactor this size struck the proto-Earth at a low angle and relatively low speed (8–20 km/sec), much material from the mantles and crusts of the proto-Earth and the impactor was ejected into space, where much of it stayed in orbit around the Earth. This material would eventually form the Moon. However, the metallic cores of the impactor would have sunk through the Earth's mantle to fuse with the Earth's core, depleting the Moon of metallic material.[20] The giant impact hypothesis thus explains the Moon's abnormal composition.[21] The ejecta in orbit around the Earth could have condensed into a single body within a couple of weeks. Under the influence of its own gravity, the ejected material became a more spherical body: the Moon.[22]

The radiometric ages show the Earth existed already for at least 10 million years before the impact, enough time to allow for differentiation of the Earth's primitive mantle and core. Then, when the impact occurred, only material from the mantle was ejected, leaving the Earth's core of heavy siderophile elements untouched.

The impact had some important consequences for the young Earth. It released an enormous amount of energy, causing both the Earth and Moon to be completely molten. Immediately after the impact, the Earth's mantle was vigorously convecting, the surface was a large magma ocean. The planet's first atmosphere must have been completely blown away by the impact.[23] The impact is also thought to have changed Earth’s axis to produce the large 23.5° axial tilt that is responsible for Earth’s seasons (a simple, ideal model of the planets’ origins would have axial tilts of 0° with no recognizable seasons). It may also have sped up Earth’s rotation.

4.3 Ga: Oceans and atmosphere

Because the Earth lacked an atmosphere immediately after the giant impact, cooling must have occurred quickly. Within 150 million years, a solid crust with a basaltic composition must have formed. The felsic continental crust of today did not yet exist. Within the Earth, further differentiation could only begin when the mantle had at least partly solidified again. Nevertheless, during the early Archaean (about 3.0 Ga) the mantle was still much hotter than today, probably around 1600 °C. This means the fraction of partially molten material was still much larger than today.

Steam escaped from the crust, and more gases were released by volcanoes, completing the second atmosphere. Additional water was imported by bolide collisions, probably from asteroids ejected from the outer asteroid belt under the influence of Jupiter's gravity.

The large amount of water on Earth can never have been produced by volcanism and degassing alone. It is assumed the water was derived from impacting comets that contained ice.[24]:130-132 Though most comets are today in orbits farther away from the Sun than Neptune, computer simulations show they were originally far more common in the inner parts of the solar system. However, most of the water on Earth was probably derived from small impacting protoplanets, objects comparable with today's small icy moons of the outer planets.[25] Impacts of these objects could have enriched the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars) with water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, nitrogen and other volatiles. If all water on Earth was derived from comets alone, millions of comet impacts would be required to support this theory. Computer simulations illustrate that this is not an unreasonable number.[24]:131

As the planet cooled, clouds formed. Rain created the oceans. Recent evidence suggests the oceans may have begun forming by 4.2 Ga,[26] or as early as 4.4 Ga.[9] In any event, by the start of the Archaean eon the Earth was already covered with oceans. The new atmosphere probably contained water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and smaller amounts of other gases.[27] As the output of the Sun was only 70% of the current amount, significant amounts of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere most likely prevented the surface water from freezing.[28] Free oxygen would have been bound by hydrogen or minerals on the surface. Volcanic activity was intense and, without an ozone layer to hinder its entry, ultraviolet radiation flooded the surface.

Lithified stromatolites on the shores of Lake Thetis (Western Australia). Stromatolites are formed by colonies of single celled organisms like cyanobacteria or chlorophyta. These colonies of algae entrap sedimentary grains, thus forming the draped sedimentary layers of a stromatolite. Archaean stromatolites are the first direct fossil traces of life on Earth, even though little preserved fossilized cells have been found inside them. The Archaean and Proterozoic oceans could have been full of algal mats like these.

4.0 Ga: The first continents

Mantle convection, the process that drives plate tectonics today, is a result of heat flow from the core to the Earth's surface. It involves the creation of rigid tectonic plates at mid-oceanic ridges. These plates are destroyed by subduction into the mantle at subduction zones. The inner Earth was warmer during the Hadean and Archaean eons, so convection in the mantle must have been faster. When a process similar to present day plate tectonics did occur, this would have gone faster too. Most geologists believe that during the Hadean and Archaean, subduction zones were more common, and therefore tectonic plates were smaller.

The initial crust, formed when the Earth's surface first solidified, totally disappeared from a combination of this fast Hadean plate tectonics and the intense impacts of the Late Heavy Bombardment. It is, however, assumed that this crust must have been basaltic in composition, like today's oceanic crust, because little crustal differentiation had yet taken place. The first larger pieces of continental crust, which is a product of differentiation of lighter elements during partial melting in the lower crust, appeared at the end of the Hadean, about 4.0 Ga. What is left of these first small continents are called cratons. These pieces of late Hadean and early Archaean crust form the cores around which today's continents grew.

The oldest rocks on Earth are found in the North American craton of Canada. They are tonalites from about 4.0 Ga. They show traces of metamorphism by high temperature, but also sedimentary grains that have been rounded by erosion during transport by water, showing rivers and seas existed then.[24]

Cratons consist primarily of two alternating types of terranes. The first are so called greenstone belts, consisting of low grade metamorphosed sedimentary rocks. These "greenstones" are similar to the sediments today found in oceanic trenches, above subduction zones. For this reason, greenstones are sometimes seen as evidence for subduction during the Archaean. The second type is a complex of felsic magmatic rocks. These rocks are mostly tonalite, trondhjemite or granodiorite, types of rock similar in composition to granite (hence such terranes are called TTG-terranes). TTG-complexes are seen as the relicts of the first continental crust, formed by partial melting in basalt. The alternation between greenstone belts and TTG-complexes is interpreted as a tectonic situation in which small proto-continents were separated by a thorough network of subduction zones.

3.5 Ga: Life

The replicator in virtually all known life is deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is far more complex than the original replicator and its replication systems are highly elaborate.

The details of the origin of life are unknown, but the basic principles have been established. There are two schools of thought about the origin of life. One suggests that organic components arrived on Earth from space (see “Panspermia”), while the other argues that they originated on Earth. Nevertheless, both schools suggest similar mechanisms by which life initially arose.[29]

If life arose on Earth, the timing of this event is highly speculative—perhaps it arose around 4 Ga.[30] It is possible that, as a result of repeated formation and destruction of oceans during that time period caused by high energy asteroid bombardment, life may have arisen and been extinguished more than once.[9]

In the energetic chemistry of early Earth, a molecule gained the ability to make copies of itself – a replicator. (More accurately, it promoted the chemical reactions which produced a copy of itself.) The replication was not always accurate: some copies were slightly different from their parent.

If the change destroyed the copying ability of the molecule, the molecule did not produce any copies, and the line “died out”. On the other hand, a few rare changes might have made the molecule replicate faster or better: those “strains” would become more numerous and “successful”. This is an early example of evolution on abiotic material. The variations present in matter and molecules combined with the universal tendency for systems to move towards a lower energy state allowed for an early method of natural selection. As choice raw materials (“food”) became depleted, strains which could utilize different materials, or perhaps halt the development of other strains and steal their resources, became more numerous.[31]:563-578

The nature of the first replicator is unknown because its function was long since superseded by life’s current replicator, DNA. Several models have been proposed explaining how a replicator might have developed. Different replicators have been posited, including organic chemicals such as modern proteins, nucleic acids, phospholipids, crystals,[32] or even quantum systems.[33] There is currently no way to determine whether any of these models closely fits the origin of life on Earth.

One of the older theories, one which has been worked out in some detail, will serve as an example of how this might occur. The high energy from volcanoes, lightning, and ultraviolet radiation could help drive chemical reactions producing more complex molecules from simple compounds such as methane and ammonia.[34]:38 Among these were many of the simpler organic compounds, including nucleobases and amino acids, which are the building blocks of life. As the amount and concentration of this “organic soup” increased, different molecules reacted with one another. Sometimes more complex molecules would result—perhaps clay provided a framework to collect and concentrate organic material.[34]:39

Certain molecules could speed up a chemical reaction. All this continued for a long time, with reactions occurring at random, until by chance it produced a replicator molecule. In any case, at some point, the function of the replicator was superseded by DNA; all known life (except some viruses and prions) use DNA as their replicator, in an almost identical manner (see Genetic code).

A small section of a cell membrane. This modern cell membrane is far more sophisticated than the original simple phospholipid bilayer (the small blue spheres with two tails). Proteins and carbohydrates serve various functions in regulating the passage of material through the membrane and in reacting to the environment.

Modern life has its replicating material packaged inside a cellular membrane. It is easier to understand the origin of the cell membrane than the origin of the replicator, because a cell membrane is made of phospholipid molecules, which often form a bilayer spontaneously when placed in water. Under certain conditions, many such spheres can be formed (see “The bubble theory”).[34]:40

The prevailing theory is that the membrane formed after the replicator, which perhaps by then was RNA (the RNA world hypothesis), along with its replicating apparatus and other biomolecules. Initial protocells may have simply burst when they grew too large; the scattered contents may then have recolonized other “bubbles”. Proteins that stabilized the membrane, or that later assisted in an orderly division, would have promoted the proliferation of those cell lines.

RNA is a likely candidate for an early replicator, because it can both store genetic information and catalyze reactions. At some point DNA took over the genetic storage role from RNA, and proteins known as enzymes took over the catalysis role, leaving RNA to transfer information, synthesize proteins and regulate the process. There is increasing belief that these early cells evolved in association with undersea volcanic vents known as black smokers[34]:42 or even hot, deep rocks.[31]:580

It is believed that of this multiplicity of protocells, only one line survived. Current phylogentic evidence suggests that the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) lived during the early Archean eon, perhaps roughly 3.5 Ga or earlier.[35][36] This LUCA cell is the ancestor of all life on Earth today. It was probably a prokaryote, possessing a cell membrane and probably ribosomes, but lacking a nucleus or membrane-bound organelles such as mitochondria or chloroplasts.

Like all modern cells, it used DNA as its genetic code, RNA for information transfer and protein synthesis, and enzymes to catalyze reactions. Some scientists believe that instead of a single organism being the last universal common ancestor, there were populations of organisms exchanging genes in lateral gene transfer.[35]

Proterozoic eon

The Proterozoic is the eon of Earth's history that lasted from 2.5 Ga to 542 Ma. In this time span, the cratons grew into continents with modern sizes. For the first time plate tectonics took place in a modern sense. The change to an oxygen-rich atmosphere was a crucial development. Life developed from prokaryotes into eukaryotes and multicellular forms. The Proterozoic saw a couple of severe ice ages called snowball Earths. After the end of the last Snowball Earth about 600 Ma, the evolution of life on Earth accelerated. About 580 Ma, the Ediacara biota formed the prelude for the Cambrian Explosion.

3.0 Ga: Oxygen revolution

The harnessing of the sun’s energy led to several major changes in life on Earth.
Graph showing range of estimated partial pressure of atmospheric oxygen through geologic time [37]
A banded iron formation from the 3.15 Ga Moories Group, Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa. Red layers represent the times when oxygen was available, gray layers were formed in anoxic circumstances.

The first cells were likely heterotrophs, using surrounding organic molecules (including those from other cells) as raw material and an energy source.[31]:564-566 As the food supply diminished, a new strategy evolved in some cells. Instead of relying on the diminishing amounts of free-existing organic molecules, these cells adopted sunlight as an energy source. Estimates vary, but by about 3 Ga, something similar to modern oxygenic photosynthesis had probably developed, which made the sun’s energy available not only to autotrophs but also to the heterotrophs that consumed them.[38][39] This type of photosynthesis, which became by far the most common, used the abundant carbon dioxide and water as raw materials and, with the energy of sunlight, produced energy-rich organic molecules (carbohydrates).

Moreover, oxygen was released as a waste product of the photosynthesis.[37] At first, it became bound up with limestone, iron, and other minerals. There is substantial proof of this in iron-oxide rich layers in geological strata that correspond with this period. The reaction of the minerals with oxygen would have turned the oceans green. When most of the exposed readily reacting minerals were oxidized, oxygen finally began to accumulate in the atmosphere. Though each cell only produced a minute amount of oxygen, the combined metabolism of many cells over a vast time transformed Earth’s atmosphere to its current state.[34]:50-51 Among the oldest examples of oxygen-producing lifeforms are fossil stromatolites. This was Earth’s third atmosphere.

Some of the oxygen was stimulated by incoming ultraviolet radiation to form ozone, which collected in a layer near the upper part of the atmosphere. The ozone layer absorbed, and still absorbs, a significant amount of the ultraviolet radiation that once had passed through the atmosphere. It allowed cells to colonize the surface of the ocean and eventually the land:[40] without the ozone layer, ultraviolet radiation bombarding land and sea would have caused unsustainable levels of mutation in exposed cells.

Photosynthesis had another, major, and world-changing impact. Oxygen was toxic; probably much life on Earth died out as its levels rose in what is known as the "oxygen catastrophe".[40] Resistant forms survived and thrived, and some developed the ability to use oxygen to increase their metabolism and obtain more energy from the same food.

2.3 Ga: Snowball Earth and ozone layer

An oxygen-rich atmosphere had two principal advantages for life. Organisms not using oxygen for their metabolism, such as anaerobe bacteria, base their metabolism on fermentation. The abundance of oxygen makes respiration possible, a much more effective energy source for life than fermentation. The second advantage of an oxygen-rich atmosphere is that oxygen forms ozone in the higher atmosphere, causing the emergence of the Earth's ozone layer. The ozone layer protects the Earth's surface from ultraviolet radiation, which is harmful for life. Without the ozone layer, the development of more complex life later on would probably have been impossible.[24]:219-220

The natural evolution of the Sun made it progressively more luminous during the Archaean and Proterozoic eons; the Sun's luminosity increases 6% every billion years.[24]:165 As a result, the Earth began to receive more heat from the Sun in the Proterozoic eon. However, the Earth did not get warmer. Instead, the geological record seems to suggest it cooled dramatically during the early Proterozoic. Glacial deposits found in all cratons show that about 2.3 Ga, the Earth underwent its first big ice age (the Makganyene glaciation).[41] Some scientists suggest this and following Proterozoic ice ages were so severe that the planet was totally frozen over from the poles to the equator, a hypothesis called Snowball Earth. Not all geologists agree with this scenario and older, Archaean ice ages have been postulated, but the ice age 2.3 Ga is the first such event for which the evidence is widely accepted.

The ice age around 2.3 Ga could have been directly caused by the increased oxygen concentration in the atmosphere, which caused the decrease of methane (CH4) in the atmosphere. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas, but with oxygen it reacts to form CO2, a less effective greenhouse gas.[24]:172 When free oxygen became available in the atmosphere, the concentration of methane could have decreased dramatically, enough to counter the effect of the increasing heat flow from the Sun.

2.0 Ga: Proterozoic development of life

Some of the pathways by which the various endosymbionts might have arisen.

Modern taxonomy classifies life into three domains. The time of the origin of these domains is uncertain. The Bacteria domain probably first split off from the other forms of life (sometimes called Neomura), but this supposition is controversial. Soon after this, by 2 Ga,[42] the Neomura split into the Archaea and the Eukarya. Eukaryotic cells (Eukarya) are larger and more complex than prokaryotic cells (Bacteria and Archaea), and the origin of that complexity is only now becoming known.

Around this time, the first proto-mitochondrion was formed. A bacterial cell related to today’s Rickettsia,[43] which had evolved to metabolize oxygen, entered a larger prokaryotic cell, which lacked that capability. Perhaps the large cell attempted to digest the smaller one but failed (possibly due to the evolution of prey defenses). The smaller cell may have tried to parasitize the larger one. In any case, the smaller cell survived inside the larger cell. Using oxygen, it metabolized the larger cell’s waste products and derived more energy. Some of this excess energy was returned to the host. The smaller cell replicated inside the larger one. Soon, a stable symbiosis developed between the large cell and the smaller cells inside it. Over time, the host cell acquired some of the genes of the smaller cells, and the two kinds became dependent on each other: the larger cell could not survive without the energy produced by the smaller ones, and these in turn could not survive without the raw materials provided by the larger cell. The whole cell is now considered a single organism, and the smaller cells are classified as organelles called mitochondria.

A similar event occurred with photosynthetic cyanobacteria[44] entering large heterotrophic cells and becoming chloroplasts.[34]:60-61[31]:536-539 Probably as a result of these changes, a line of cells capable of photosynthesis split off from the other eukaryotes more than 1 billion years ago. There were probably several such inclusion events, as the figure at right suggests. Besides the well-established endosymbiotic theory of the cellular origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts, it has been suggested that cells led to peroxisomes, spirochetes led to cilia and flagella, and that perhaps a DNA virus led to the cell nucleus,[45],[46] though none of these theories is widely accepted.[47]

Green algae of the genus Volvox are believed to be similar to the first multicellular plants.

Archaeans, bacteria, and eukaryotes continued to diversify and to become more complex and better adapted to their environments. Each domain repeatedly split into multiple lineages, although little is known about the history of the archaea and bacteria. Around 1.1 Ga, the supercontinent Rodinia was assembling.[48] The plant, animal, and fungi lines had all split, though they still existed as solitary cells. Some of these lived in colonies, and gradually some division of labor began to take place; for instance, cells on the periphery might have started to assume different roles from those in the interior. Although the division between a colony with specialized cells and a multicellular organism is not always clear, around 1 billion years ago[49] the first multicellular plants emerged, probably green algae.[50] Possibly by around 900 Ma[31]:488 true multicellularity had also evolved in animals.

At first it probably resembled today’s sponges, which have totipotent cells that allow a disrupted organism to reassemble itself.[31]:483-487 As the division of labor was completed in all lines of multicellular organisms, cells became more specialized and more dependent on each other; isolated cells would die.

Supercontinents in the Proterozoic era

Wilson cycle timeline from 1 Ga, depicting Rodinia and Pangaea supercontinent formation and separation

When the theory of Plate tectonics was developed around 1960, geologists began to reconstruct the movements and positions of the continents in the past. This appeared relatively easy until about 250 million years ago, when all continents were united in what is called the "supercontinent" Pangaea. Before that time, reconstructions cannot rely on apparent similarities in coastlines or ages of oceanic crust, but only on geologic observations and paleomagnetic data.[24]:95

Throughout the history of the Earth, there have been times when the continental mass came together to form a supercontinent, followed by the break-up of the supercontinent and new continents moving apart again. This repetition of tectonic events is called a Wilson cycle. The further back in time, the scarcer and harder to interpret the data get. It is at least clear that, about 1000 to 830 Ma, most continental mass was united in the supercontinent Rodinia.[51] Rodinia was not the first supercontinent; it formed at ~1.0 Ga by accretion and collision of fragments produced by breakup of the older supercontinent, called Nuna or Columbia, which was assembled by global-scale 2.0-1.8 Ga collision events.[52][53] This means plate tectonic processes similar to today's must have been active during the Proterozoic.

After the break-up of Rodinia about 800 Ma, it is possible the continents joined again around 550 Ma. The hypothetical supercontinent is sometimes referred to as Pannotia or Vendia. The evidence for it is a phase of continental collision known as the Pan-African orogeny, which joined the continental masses of current-day Africa, South-America, Antarctica and Australia. It is extremely likely, however, that the aggregation of continental masses was not completed, since a continent called Laurentia (roughly equivalent to current-day North America) had already started breaking off around 610 Ma. It is at least certain that by the end of the Proterozoic eon, most of the continental mass lay united in a position around the south pole.[54]

Late Proterozoic climate and life

A 580 million year old fossil of Spriggina floundensi, an animal from the Ediacaran period. Such life forms could have been ancestors to the many new forms that origined in the Cambrian Explosion.

The end of the Proterozoic saw at least two Snowball Earths, so severe that the surface of the oceans may have been completely frozen. This happened about 710 and 640 Ma, in the Cryogenian period. These severe glaciations are less easy to explain than the early Proterozoic Snowball Earth. Most paleoclimatologists think the cold episodes had something to do with the formation of the supercontinent Rodinia. Because Rodinia was centered on the equator, rates of chemical weathering increased and carbon dioxide (CO2) was taken from the atmosphere. Because CO2 is an important greenhouse gas, climates cooled globally.

In the same way, during the Snowball Earths most of the continental surface was in permafrost, which decreased chemical weathering again, leading to the end of the glaciations. An alternative hypothesis is that enough carbon dioxide escaped through volcanic outgassing that the resulting greenhouse effect raised global temperatures.[55] Increased volcanic activity resulted from the break-up of Rodinia at about the same time.

The Cryogenian period was followed by the Ediacaran period, which was characterized by a rapid development of new multicellular lifeforms. Whether there is a connection between the end of the severe ice ages and the increase in diversity of life is not clear, but it does not seem coincidental. The new forms of life, called Ediacara biota, were larger and more diverse than ever. Most scientists think some of them may have been the precursors of the new life forms of the following Cambrian period. Though the taxonomy of most Ediacaran life forms is unclear, some are proposed to have been ancestors of groups of modern life.[56] Important developments were the origin of muscular and neural cells. None of the Ediacaran fossils had hard body parts like skeletons. These first appear after the boundary between the Proterozoic and Phanerozoic eons or Ediacaran and Cambrian periods.

Phanerozoic eon

The Phanerozoic is the major eon of life on Earth. It consists of three eras: The Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic, and is the time when multi-cellular life greatly diversified into all of its modern forms.

Paleozoic era

The Paleozoic era (meaning: era of old life forms) was the first era of the Phanerozoic eon, lasting from 542 to 251 Ma. During the Paleozoic, many modern groups of life came into existence. Life colonized the land, first plants, then animals. Life usually evolved slowly. At times, however, there are sudden radiations of new species or mass extinctions. These bursts of evolution were often caused by unexpected changes in the environment resulting from natural disasters such as volcanic activity, meteorite impacts or climate changes.

The continents formed at the break-up of Pannotia and Rodinia at the end of the Proterozoic would slowly move together again during the Paleozoic. This would eventually result in phases of mountain building that created the supercontinent Pangaea in the late Paleozoic.

542 Ma: Cambrian explosion

Apparently, the rate of the evolution of life accelerated in the Cambrian period (542-488 Ma). The sudden emergence of many new species, phyla, and forms in this period is called the Cambrian Explosion. The biological fomenting in the Cambrian Explosion was unpreceded before and since that time.[24]:229 Whereas the Ediacaran life forms appear yet primitive and not easy to put in any modern group, at the end of the Cambrian most modern phyla were already present. The development of hard body parts such as shells, skeletons or exoskeletons in animals like molluscs, echinoderms, crinoids and arthropods (a well-known group of arthropods from the lower Paleozoic are the trilobites) made the preservation and fossilisation of such life forms easier than those of their Proterozoic ancestors.[57] For this reason, much more is known about life in and after the Cambrian than about that of older periods. The boundary between the Cambrian and Ordovician (the following period, 488-444 Ma) is characterized by a large mass-extinction, in which some of the new groups disappeared altogether.[58] Some of these Cambrian groups appear complex but are quite different from modern life; examples are Anomalocaris and Haikouichthys.

During the Cambrian, the first vertebrate animals, among them the first fishes, had appeared.[59] A creature that could have been the ancestor of the fishes, or was probably closely related to it, was Pikaia. It had a primitive notochord, a structure that could have developed into a vertebral column later. The first fishes with jaws (Gnathostomata) appeared during the Ordovician. The colonisation of new niches resulted in massive body sizes. In this way, fishes with increasing sizes evolved during the early Paleozoic, such as the titanic placoderm Dunkleosteus, which could grow 7 meters long.

Paleozoic tectonics, paleogeography and climate

At the end of the Proterozoic, the supercontinent Pannotia had broken apart in the smaller continents Laurentia, Baltica, Siberia and Gondwana. During periods when continents move apart, more oceanic crust is formed by volcanic activity. Because young volcanic crust is relatively hotter and less dense than old oceanic crust, the ocean floors will rise during such periods. This causes the sea level to rise. Therefore, in the first half of the Paleozoic, large areas of the continents were below sea level.

Early Paleozoic climates were warmer than today, but the end of the Ordovician saw a short ice age during which glaciers covered the south pole, where the huge continent Gondwana was situated. Traces of glaciation from this period are only found on former Gondwana. During the Late Ordovician ice age, a number of mass extinctions took place, in which many brachiopods, trilobites, Bryozoa and corals disappeared. These marine species could probably not contend with the decreasing temperature of the sea water.[60] After the extinctions new species evolved, more diverse and better adapted. They would fill the niches left by the extinct species.

The continents Laurentia and Baltica collided between 450 and 400 Ma, during the Caledonian Orogeny, to form Laurussia. Traces of the mountain belt which resulted from this collision can be found in Scandinavia, Scotland and the northern Appalachians. In the Devonian period (416-359 Ma) Gondwana and Siberia began to move towards Laurussia. The collision of Siberia with Laurussia caused the Uralian Orogeny, the collision of Gondwana with Laurussia is called the Variscan or Hercynian Orogeny in Europe or the Alleghenian Orogeny in North America. The latter phase took place during the Carboniferous period (359-299 Ma) and resulted in the formation of the last supercontinent, Pangaea.

Colonization of land

For most of Earth’s history, there were no multicellular organisms on land. Parts of the surface may have vaguely resembled this view of Mars.[citation needed]

Oxygen accumulation from photosynthesis resulted in the formation of an ozone layer that absorbed much of the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation, meaning unicellular organisms that reached land were less likely to die, and prokaryotes began to multiply and become better adapted to survival out of the water. A variety of prokaryote lineages[61] had probably colonized the land as early as 2.6 Ga[62] even before the origin of the eukaryotes. For a long time, the land remained barren of multicellular organisms. The supercontinent Pannotia formed around 600 Ma and then broke apart a short 50 million years later.[63] Fish, the earliest vertebrates, evolved in the oceans around 530 Ma.[31]:354 A major extinction event occurred near the end of the Cambrian period,[64] which ended 488 Ma.[65]

Several hundred million years ago, plants (probably resembling algae) and fungi started growing at the edges of the water, and then out of it.[66]:138-140 The oldest fossils of land fungi and plants date to 480–460 Ma, though molecular evidence suggests the fungi may have colonized the land as early as 1000 Ma and the plants 700 Ma.[67] Initially remaining close to the water’s edge, mutations and variations resulted in further colonization of this new environment. The timing of the first animals to leave the oceans is not precisely known: the oldest clear evidence is of arthropods on land around 450 Ma,[68] perhaps thriving and becoming better adapted due to the vast food source provided by the terrestrial plants. There is also some unconfirmed evidence that arthropods may have appeared on land as early as 530 Ma.[69]

At the end of the Ordovician period, 440 Ma, additional extinction events occurred, perhaps due to a concurrent ice age.[60] Around 380 to 375 Ma, the first tetrapods evolved from fish.[70] It is thought that perhaps fins evolved to become limbs which allowed the first tetrapods to lift their heads out of the water to breathe air. This would allow them to live in oxygen-poor water or pursue small prey in shallow water.[70] They may have later ventured on land for brief periods. Eventually, some of them became so well adapted to terrestrial life that they spent their adult lives on land, although they hatched in the water and returned to lay their eggs. This was the origin of the amphibians. About 365 Ma, another period of extinction occurred, perhaps as a result of global cooling.[71] Plants evolved seeds, which dramatically accelerated their spread on land, around this time (by approximately 360 Ma).[72][73]

Pangaea, the most recent supercontinent, existed from 300 to 180 Ma. The outlines of the modern continents and other land masses are indicated on this map.

Some 20 million years later (340 Ma[31]:293-296), the amniotic egg evolved, which could be laid on land, giving a survival advantage to tetrapod embryos. This resulted in the divergence of amniotes from amphibians. Another 30 million years (310 Ma[31]:254-256) saw the divergence of the synapsids (including mammals) from the sauropsids (including birds and reptiles). Other groups of organisms continued to evolve, and lines diverged—in fish, insects, bacteria, and so on—but less is known of the details. The most recent hypothesized supercontinent, called Pangaea, formed 300 Ma.

Mesozoic era

Dinosaurs were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates throughout most of the Mesozoic

The most severe extinction event to date took place 250 Ma, at the boundary of the Permian and Triassic periods; 95% of life on Earth died out and started the Mesozoic era (meaning "middle life") that spanned 187 million years[74]. This extinction event was possibly caused by the Siberian Traps volcanic event, an asteroid impact, methane hydrate gasification, sea level fluctuations, a major anoxic event, other events, or some combination of these events. Either the proposed Wilkes Land crater[75] in Antarctica or Bedout structure off the northwest coast of Australia may indicate an impact connection with the Permian-Triassic extinction. But it remains uncertain whether either these or other proposed Permian-Triassic boundary craters are either real impact craters or even contemporaneous with the Permian-Triassic extinction event. Life persevered, and around 230 Ma,[76] dinosaurs split off from their reptilian ancestors. An extinction event between the Triassic and Jurassic periods 200 Ma spared many of the dinosaurs,[77] and they soon became dominant among the vertebrates. Though some of the mammalian lines began to separate during this period, existing mammals were probably all small animals resembling shrews.[31]:169

By 180 Ma, Pangaea broke up into Laurasia and Gondwana. The boundary between avian and non-avian dinosaurs is not clear, but Archaeopteryx, traditionally considered one of the first birds, lived around 150 Ma.[78] The earliest evidence for the angiosperms evolving flowers is during the Cretaceous period, some 20 million years later (132 Ma).[79] Competition with birds drove many pterosaurs to extinction and the dinosaurs were probably already in decline[80] when, 65 Ma, a 10-kilometre (6.2 mi) meteorite probably struck Earth just off the Yucatán Peninsula where the Chicxulub crater is today. This ejected vast quantities of particulate matter and vapor into the air that occluded sunlight, inhibiting photosynthesis. Most large animals, including the non-avian dinosaurs, became extinct,[81] marking the end of the Cretaceous period and Mesozoic era. Thereafter, in the Paleocene epoch, mammals rapidly diversified, grew larger, and became the dominant vertebrates. Perhaps a couple of million years later (around 63 Ma), the last common ancestor of primates lived.[31]:160 By the late Eocene epoch, 34 Ma, some terrestrial mammals had returned to the oceans to become animals such as Basilosaurus which eventually led to dolphins and baleen whales.[82]

Cenozoic era (Recent life)

The Cenozoic era began in the wake of the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event, which killed off the dinosaurs and many other forms of marine and terrestrial life. The mammals, however, survived, and this is the era in which they diversified into their modern forms.

2 Ma: Human evolution

Australopithecus africanus, an early hominid.

A small African ape living around 6 Ma was the last animal whose descendants would include both modern humans and their closest relatives, the bonobo and chimpanzees.[31]:100-101 Only two branches of its family tree have surviving descendants. Very soon after the split, for reasons that are still debated, apes in one branch developed the ability to walk upright.[31]:95-99 Brain size increased rapidly, and by 2 Ma, the first animals classified in the genus Homo had appeared.[66]:300 Of course, the line between different species or even genera is somewhat arbitrary as organisms continuously change over generations. Around the same time, the other branch split into the ancestors of the common chimpanzee and the ancestors of the bonobo as evolution continued simultaneously in all life forms.[31]:100-101

The ability to control fire probably began in Homo erectus (or Homo ergaster), probably at least 790,000 years ago[83] but perhaps as early as 1.5 Ma.[31]:67 In addition, it has sometimes suggested that the use and discovery of controlled fire may even predate Homo erectus. Fire was possibly used by the early Lower Paleolithic (Oldowan) hominid Homo habilis or strong australopithecines such as Paranthropus.[84]

It is more difficult to establish the origin of language; it is unclear whether Homo erectus could speak or if that capability had not begun until Homo sapiens.[31]:67 As brain size increased, babies were born earlier, before their heads grew too large to pass through the pelvis. As a result, they exhibited more plasticity, and thus possessed an increased capacity to learn and required a longer period of dependence. Social skills became more complex, language became more sophisticated, and tools became more elaborate. This contributed to further cooperation and intellectual development.[85]:7 Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are believed to have originated somewhere around 200,000 years ago or earlier in Africa; the oldest fossils date back to around 160,000 years ago.[86]

The first humans to show signs of spirituality are the Neanderthals (usually classified as a separate species with no surviving descendants); they buried their dead, often apparently with food or tools.[87]:17 However, evidence of more sophisticated beliefs, such as the early Cro-Magnon cave paintings (probably with magical or religious significance)[87]:17-19 did not appear until some 32,000 years ago.[88] Cro-Magnons also left behind stone figurines such as Venus of Willendorf, probably also signifying religious belief.[87]:17-19 By 11,000 years ago, Homo sapiens had reached the southern tip of South America, the last of the uninhabited continents (except for Antarctica, which remained undiscovered until 1820 AD).[89] Tool use and communication continued to improve, and interpersonal relationships became more intricate.

10,000 ya: Civilization

Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci epitomizes the advances in art and science seen during the Renaissance.

Throughout more than 90% of its history, Homo sapiens lived in small bands as nomadic hunter-gatherers.[85]:8 As language became more complex, the ability to remember and communicate information resulted in a new replicator: the meme.[90] Ideas could be exchanged quickly and passed down the generations.

Cultural evolution quickly outpaced biological evolution, and history proper began. Somewhere between 8500 and 7000 BC, humans in the Fertile Crescent in Middle East began the systematic husbandry of plants and animals: agriculture.[91] This spread to neighboring regions, and developed independently elsewhere, until most Homo sapiens lived sedentary lives in permanent settlements as farmers.

Not all societies abandoned nomadism, especially those in isolated areas of the globe poor in domesticable plant species, such as Australia.[92] However, among those civilizations that did adopt agriculture, the relative stability and increased productivity provided by farming allowed the population to expand.

Agriculture had a major impact; humans began to affect the environment as never before. Surplus food allowed a priestly or governing class to arise, followed by increasing division of labor. This led to Earth’s first civilization at Sumer in the Middle East, between 4000 and 3000 BC.[85]:15 Additional civilizations quickly arose in ancient Egypt, at the Indus River valley and in China.

The invention of writing enabled complex societies to arise: record-keeping and libraries served as a storehouse of knowledge and increased the cultural transmission of information. Humans no longer had to spend all their time working for survival—curiosity and education drove the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

Various disciplines, including science (in a primitive form), arose. New civilizations sprang up, traded with one another, and fought for territory and resources. Empires soon began to develop. By around 500 BC, there were empires in the Middle East, Iran, India, China, and Greece, on nearly equal footing; at times one empire expanded, only to decline or be driven back later.[85]:3

The fundamentals of the Western world were largely shaped by the ancient Greco-Roman culture. The Roman Empire was Christianized by Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century and declined by the end of the fifth. Beginning with the seventh century, Christianization of Europe begin. In 1054 CE the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church lead to the prominent cultural differences between Western and Eastern Europe.

In the fourteenth century, the Renaissance began in Italy with advances in religion, art, and science.[85]:317-319 At that time the Christian Church as a political entity lost much of its power. European civilization began to change beginning in 1500, leading to the scientific and industrial revolutions. That continent began to exert political and cultural dominance over human societies around the planet, a time known as the Colonial era (also see Age of Discovery).[85]:295-299 In the eigteenth century a cultural movement known as the Age of Enlightenment further shaped the mentaity of Europe and contributed to its secularization. From 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945, nations around the world were embroiled in world wars.

Established following World War I, the League of Nations was a first step in establishing international institutions to settle disputes peacefully. After failing to prevent World War II, it was replaced by the United Nations. In 1992, several European nations joined in the European Union. As transportation and communication improved, the economies and political affairs of nations around the world have become increasingly intertwined. This globalization has often produced both conflict and collaboration.

75 ya: Recent events

Four and a half billion years after the planet's formation, Earth’s life broke free of the biosphere. For the first time in history, Earth was viewed from space.

Change has continued at a rapid pace from the mid-1940s to today. Technological developments include nuclear weapons, computers, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. Economic globalization spurred by advances in communication and transportation technology has influenced everyday life in many parts of the world. Cultural and institutional forms such as democracy, capitalism, and environmentalism have increased influence. Major concerns and problems such as disease, war, poverty, violent radicalism, and recently, human-caused climate change have risen as the world population increases.[93]

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite into orbit and, soon afterward, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Neil Armstrong, an American, was the first to set foot on another astronomical object, the Moon. Unmanned probes have been sent to all the known planets in the solar system, with some (such as Voyager) having left the solar system. The Soviet Union and the United States were the earliest leaders in space exploration in the 20th century. Five space agencies, representing over fifteen countries,[94] have worked together to build the International Space Station. Aboard it, there has been a continuous human presence in space since 2000.[95]

See also

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  2. ^ The Earth's Moon is larger relative to its planet than any other satellite in the solar system. Pluto's satellite Charon is relatively larger, but Pluto is considered a dwarf planet.


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