We want to know when plate tectonics began and will consider any important Earth feature that shows significant temporal evolution. Kimberlites, the primary source of diamonds, are rare igneous features. We analyze their distribution throughout Earth history; most are young (∼95% are younger than 0.75 Ga), but rare examples are found as far back as the Archean (older than 2.5 Ga). Although there are differing explanations for this age asymmetry (lack of preservation, lack of exposure, fewer mantle plumes, or lack of old thick lithosphere in the Archean and Proterozoic), we suggest that kimberlite eruptions are a consequence of modern-style plate tectonics, in particular subduction of hydrated oceanic crust and sediments deep into the mantle. This recycling since the onset of modern-style plate tectonics ca. 1 Ga has massively increased mantle CO2 and H2O contents, leading to the rapid and explosive ascent of diamond-bearing kimberlite magmas. The age distribution of kimberlites, combined with other large-scale tectonic indicators that are prevalent only in the past ∼1 Ga (blueschists, glaucophane-bearing eclogites; coesite- or diamond-bearing ultrahigh-pressure metamorphic rocks; lawsonite-bearing metamorphic rocks; and jadeitites), indicates that plate tectonics, as observed today, has only operated for <25% of Earth history.
- Received 24 April 2016.
- Revision received 10 July 2016.
- Accepted 11 July 2016.
- © Geological Society of America