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Loring Bailey, George Matthew, William Dawson and William Murdoch

Some of the first maps of Precambrian rocks near Saint John were made in the 1870s by Loring Woart Bailey, Professor of Natural History and Chemistry at the University of New Brunswick, and his colleague George Frederic Matthew, a customs agent and part-time geologist from Saint John. In 1870 while studying the geology near Green Head Island they took the first step in an adventure that led to the discovery of the world’s first Precambrian fossils.

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Bailey and Matthew often worked for the Geological Survey of Canada. They wrote in their 1871 report about seeing large numbers of concentric nodular masses looking like corals, but they could not say for sure they were fossils. They did not realize it at the time, but the features they were describing would become the first authentic Precambrian fossils described in the scientific literature.

"At the Green Head quarry appear the dark grey limestones of the section, exposing a vertical wall of 100 feet. A short distance around and beyond that point, which forms the upper end of the Narrows on this side, are beds of limestone exposing, over a surface of nearly ten feet square, large numbers of concentric nodular masses, bearing much resemblance to some genera of corals, but apparently destitute of organic structure, and probably concretionary." (Geological Survey of Canada, Report of Progress, 1871).

In the 1860s, the famous Canadian geologist William Dawson described a structure he called ‘Eozoon canadense’, which he believed was the first known Precambrian fossil. It was a momentous discovery. Darwin’s theory of evolution predicted that there must be fossils older than trilobites and brachiopods known from the Cambrian Period, but none had ever been found. The absence of fossils before the Cambrian is sometimes called ‘Darwin’s Dilemma’. Dawson’s discovery did not resolve the problem however, as not everyone agreed with his interpretation. Eozoon is no longer considered a fossil.

William Murdoch, a civil engineer and partner in the Green Head lime quarry, brought Matthew a specimen to examine in 1890. Matthew immediately recognized it as a fossil. Murdoch took him back to almost the exact place he had seen with Bailey 20 years before. This time Matthew saw a much better exposure of the fossils he eventually named Archaeozoon acadiense, now known to be a stromatolite. He published a description later that year in the Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick.  The discovery is now known as the first scientific description of a Precambrian fossil.

We now know that the earliest life appeared in the Precambrian over 3 billion years ago. The Precambrian fossil record is characterized by cyanobacteria that formed structures called stromatolites, mounds composed of organic mats and sediment. It was not until the end of Precambrian time about 600 million years ago that the first multicellular animals evolved.