World’s Oldest Fossils, Or Just Rocks? Scientists Disagree Over Results

An Australian researcher believes he has found the world's oldest fossils; a scientist from NASA says they are just rocks.

Two scientists are debating over weather rocks or fossils have been found
Agatha Kadar / Shutterstock

An Australian researcher believes he has found the world's oldest fossils; a scientist from NASA says they are just rocks.

According to Allen Nutman, a scientist from the University of Wollongong, Australia, he has located the world’s oldest fossils in Greenland. However, NASA astrobiologist Abigail Allwood, who was previously billed with finding the world’s oldest fossils disagrees with Nutman’s findings.

Two years ago, Australian researchers discovered what they believed to be the world’s oldest identified fossils. According to AP News, the researchers found “odd structures in Greenland that they said were partly leftovers from microbes that lived on an ancient seafloor.” Dated at 3.7 billion years, this made them somewhat older than the previously believed oldest fossils that were dated at nearly 3.5 billion years. It also meant that the previously held belief of when life started forming on Earth was now incorrect.

Recently, though, new research on the original finding by the Australian researchers has been released disputing that fossils were found. Instead, they claim that the fossils are merely rocks.

In the study, Abigail Allwood used NASA technology to determine that the Australian researchers had found rocks and not fossils. Traveling to Greenland herself, Allwood determined that “the weathering and mostly the interior layers of the structures didn’t fit with this type of fossil, called stromatolites.”

She then used an instrument that creates a chemical map of the structure in question, determining from this that they were looking at rocks and not 3.7 billion-year-old fossils. This instrument is the same one NASA will be using in a few years time to map out the chemicals on Mars.

Three other experts have since come forward to agree with the newer findings by Allwood, according to the Associated Press.

University of Connecticut’s Pieter Visscher was impressed with Nutman’s work. However, he was persuaded by Allwood’s newer research on the matter.

However, Allen Nutman is determined to prove his original findings as correct. Nutman and his colleagues have since released a statement in defense of their original findings.

“This is a classic comparing apples and oranges scenario, leading to the inevitable outcome that ours and their observations do not exactly match,” they said in the statement.

Nutman also insisted that Allwood’s samples were taken “from the far end of one of two sites and didn’t test the original specimens when offered.”

Another scientist, Marie Catherine Sforna of the University of Liège, in Belgium, also weighed in on the debate over fossils versus rocks.

“The search for traces of early life is without any doubt a difficult task and often raises controversy,” she said.