Facing Death at the Ends of the Earth

The discovery of the world’s oldest rock offers a hefty dose of perspective

Landscape over Northern Québec near Inukjuak, where the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt was discovered (Ian Schofield, Flickr/schofields)
Landscape over Northern Québec near Inukjuak, where the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt was discovered (Ian Schofield, Flickr/schofields)

In the Covid era, when even a trip to the grocery store takes on the fraught characteristics of a medieval quest, an ancient rock has become my Holy Grail. Not merely ancient—this rock, located in what seems like the middle of nowhere, is apparently the oldest in the whole of earthly creation.

Can you even get there from here (no matter where “here” is)? There are no roads. Or at least, as Google Maps politely informs you: Sorry, we could not calculate driving directions to Inukjuak, Quebec, Canada. The tiny village (1,757 inhabitants, 439 dwellings) is one of the northernmost settlements in the Inuit-populated region called Nunavik—itself thinly populated (about 13,000), though comprising a third of Quebec’s total land area.

Originally a fur-trading post perched on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, Inukjuak has a climate that, despite recent temperatures creeping ever upward, still must be considered polar. Covered in ice much of the year, there is lichen but no trees, and just enough soil for berries, the most beautiful of which are poisonous. The flat and barren landscape exposes the continental crust’s bare bedrock, otherwise buried deep underground. “Harsh” and “bleak” come to mind—enticing to curious scientists but no country for creationists.

It is here, at the ends of the Earth, that geologists may have found Earth’s beginnings. In the early 2000s, they stumbled upon something called the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt, so named for its distinctive hue. If its age is indeed 4.4 billion years, as they assert, the rock would be 500 million years older than any previous find and only 200 million years younger than the planet itself. I say “stumbled upon” because the geologists were not actively searching for the Earth’s oldest rock. Instead, they were looking for figurative gold—minerals and other natural resources that the Quebec and Canadian governments might wish to exploit.

In this respect, the Nuvvuagittuq finding was exactly like many other important discoveries: strange, unexpected, and accidental. Columbus wasn’t seeking America. Alexander Fleming happened upon penicillin in a stray petri dish. Wilhelm Rontgen certainly didn’t set out to discover X-rays.

So, too, my own “discovery” of the Nuvvuagittuq finding was serendipitous. Waiting to have a hand injury examined at the local hospital’s (pre-Covid) emergency room, I randomly flipped through the reading materials strewn about. Among the old newspapers and magazines, even older catalogs, and well-worn baby books, a news brief about this ancient rock captured my attention.

Though my injury was not close to life-threatening, any ER visit serves as vivid reminder of life’s fragility. Rocks, on the other hand, are solid, something to hold onto. The older the rock, one thinks, the more reassuringly solid it must be. But like everything else on Earth, even rocks are subject to change. They erode; they are heated and compressed into newer and different rocks; they are thrust about by tectonic plates. So, finding an intact remnent of the planet’s very first hardened crust is extraordinary. And serendipitous.

The Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt is part of the Canadian Shield, which surrounds Hudson Bay and was named for its resemblance to the protective gear in ancient and medieval combat. It is one of the very few places on the planet that has a stable, relatively flat, rocky crust unaffected by tectonic movement. Here, bedrock forms the surface, as most soils have been stripped away by glaciers. The Canadian Shield could form only when the Earth’s surface had cooled enough to become solid, which was, until recently, believed to be about 3.8 billion years ago.

About 800 million years earlier, the planet that would eventually become home for humans first formed. It was essentially a fiery ball, characterized by a molten surface, spewing volcanoes, and colliding asteroids. The Hadean Eon is that period’s fitting name—too hot and hellish for even rocks to take shape, much less any form of life, early Earth has remained mysterious.

Like an uninvited, inconvenient dinner-party guest, however, the Nuvvuagittuq discovery has crashed this geologic consensus. Based on iron deposits found in the Nuvvuagittuq Belt, for example, scientists have determined that the biological basis for life as we know it may have emerged millions and millions of years earlier than previously surmised. It means that the early planet was not just fiery but watery, too.

Even if not all geologists agree that the Nuvvuagittuq is 4.4 billion years old, they do all agree that it’s at least 3.8 billion years old—as old as any other rock on the planet. It is the ultimate origin story. While friends and family send saliva to 23andMe, register on Ancestry.com, research their ethnic heritage, or read about the original intent of our country’s founders, I’m content to go back to the very beginning of all things.

Yes, I want to travel to Inukjuak and see for myself the Nuvvuagittuq rock. Not only to touch it, to feel it, but also possibly to revere it, as if it is a saint’s relic. To understand, both viscerally and intellectually, my tiny place in the Earth’s existence. As Aeschylus proclaimed in Prometheus Bound, “to know one’s place in the great order of things.”

So, you and the dawn of creation become as one. Time is abolished; the enormousness of the universe is shrunk down to a comprehensible size that can be brushed by the palm of your hand. The social media chatter and political turmoil of your life and times vanish into something like metamorphosed magma.

To thus confront one’s insignificance in the “order of things” is strangely liberating—letting go of narcissism and any pretensions to human exceptionalism. The afterlife, as promised by many of the world’s religions, presumes that I’m important—worth “saving.” That ancient rock in the Canadian Shield says otherwise. It preaches true humility. I should take comfort and joy in my tangible unimportance.

Studying philosophy is to learn to die, Montaigne famously asserted. The same can be said about geology. If my next trip to the ER turns out to indeed be my last, I’ll come prepared for oblivion thanks in part to the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Walter Nicklin is a journalist and former magazine publisher who divides his time between Virginia and Maine.


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