At present three leading theories are held as to the origin of these basal crystalline rocks.
1. They are considered by perhaps the majority of the geologists who have studied them most carefully to be igneous rocks intruded in a molten state among the sedimentary rocks involved with them. In many localities this relation is proved by the phenomena of contact; but for the most part the deformations which the rocks have since suffered again and again have been sufficient to destroy such evidence if it ever existed.
2. An older view regards them as profoundly altered sedimentary strata, the most ancient of the earth.
3. According to a third theory they represent portions of the earth’s original crust; not, indeed, its original surface, but deeper portions uncovered by erosion and afterwards mantled with sedimentary deposits. All these theories agree that the present foliated condition of these rocks is due to the intense metamorphism which they have suffered.
It is to this body of crystalline rocks and the stratified rocks involved with it, which form a very small proportion of its mass, that the term Archean (Greek, ARCHE, beginning) is applied by many geologists.
In some regions there rests unconformably on the Archean an immense body of stratified rocks, thousands and in places even scores of thousands of feet thick, known as the Algonkian. Great unconformities divide it into well-defined systems, but as only the scantiest traces of fossils appear here and there among its strata, it is as yet impossible to correlate the formations of different regions and to give them names of more than local application. We will describe the Algonkian rocks of two typical areas.
The grand canyon of the Colorado. We have already studied a very ancient peneplain whose edge is exposed to view deep on the walls of the Colorado Canyon. The formation of flat-lying sandstone which covers this buried land surface is proved by its fossils to belong to the Cambrian,—the earliest period of the Paleozoic era. The tilted rocks on whose upturned edges the Cambrian sandstone rests are far older, for the physical break which separates them from it records a time interval during which they were upheaved to mountainous ridges and worn down to a low plain. They are therefore classified as Algonkian. They comprise two immense series. The upper is more than five thousand feet thick and consists of shales and sandstones with some limestones. Separated from it by an unconformity which does not appear in Figure 207, the lower division, seven thousand feet thick, consists chiefly of massive reddish sandstones with seven or more sheets of lava interbedded. The lowest member is a basal conglomerate composed of pebbles derived from the erosion of the dark crumpled schists beneath,—schists which are supposed to be Archean. As shown in Figure 207, a strong unconformity parts the schists and the Algonkian. The floor on which the Algonkian rests is remarkably even, and here again is proved an interval of incalculable length, during which an ancient land mass of Archean rocks was baseleveled before it received the cover of the sediments of the later age.