Erawondoo Hill is added to the National Heritage List to protect its zircon crystals, the oldest minerals on Earth

This scrub patch in the remote wilderness of Western Australia has been added to the National Heritage List. Its meaning?

Erawondoo Hill, 800 kilometers north of Perth, is home to the oldest known mineral grains on Earth, the zircon crystals, which date back 4.4 billion years, making them 120 million years younger than the earth.

“This is the most incredible treasure chest in the world,” said Martin van Kranendonk, director of the Australian Center for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales.

Professor van Kranendonk described the area as “very dry, desolate, and very remote.”

It is also close to mining activity.

But the site continues to attract a stream of enthusiastic geologists from around the world.

“The hill doesn’t look like anything particularly special, and if you look at the rocks and break them, you’re going to say ‘There’s nothing particularly interesting there,’ but of course the devil is in the details,” he said.

“It has taken people on those fantasy flights and to think about our history, where we come from, what our planet went through to become a livable environment where we could live.”

“It actually inspired someone to write a symphony about it based on these 4.4 billion-year-old grains.”

zircon crystals
These zircon crystals at Erawondoo Hill have just been placed on the National Heritage List.(Supplied: Federal Government)

Site one of the most important in the world: minister

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said Erawondoo Hill was being recognized for its excellent national heritage value.

She said it was one of the most important places in the world to investigate the origins of Earth.

“There is simply no other place where zircon crystals of this age occur in such abundance,” Minister Ley said in a statement.

She said that analysis of the crystals and surrounding sedimentary rocks have revolutionized scientific thinking about the early phases of Earth’s history.

The mineral deposit was discovered in the early 1980s and Professor van Kranendonk was delighted that the site was being protected.

Professor van Kranendonk says that crystals are the key to our understanding of how Earth formed.

“These crystals not only have information about the time of their formation, but they also have information about the environment in which they form,” he said.

Professor van Kranendonk said that the crystals formed from magma, or liquid rock, in the crust.

“As it cools, it has very specific compositional information,” he said.

“So he tells us about the nature of the crust that was forming at the time.

Martin sits on a rock against a blue sky.
Martin Van Kranendonk is a scientist at the Australian Center for Astrobiology.(ABC News: Isabella Higgins)

Pilbara’s site also needs protection

Professor van Kranendonk is working with others to obtain National Heritage recognition for another site in Pilbara, Western Australia.

The North Pole Dome, near Port Hedland, is vulnerable to destruction by fossil gatherers and possible mining activity, he says.

Professor van Kranendonk said the site had the oldest evidence of any life on Earth and that it was visited by scientists from NASA and the European Space Agency last year to help them learn to explore signs of life for a next mission rover to Mars.