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Carbon is the key element of life, and its origin in ancient sedimentary rocks is central to questions about the emergence and early evolution of life. The oldest well-preserved carbon occurs with fossil-like structures in 3.5- billion-year-old black chert. The carbonaceous matter, which is associated with hydrothermal chert-barite vent systems originating in underlying basaltic-komatiitic lavas, is thought to be derived from microbial life. Here, we show that 3.5-billion-year-old black chert vein systems from the Pilbara Craton, Australia contain abundant residues of migrated organic carbon. Using younger analogs, we argue that the black cherts formed during precipitation from silica-rich, carbon-bearing hydrothermal fluids in vein systems and vent-proximal seafloor sediments. Given the volcanic setting and lack of organic-rich sediments, we speculate that the vent-mound systems contain carbon derived from rock-powered organic synthesis in the underlying mafic-ultramafic lavas, providing a glimpse of a prebiotic world awash in terrestrial organic compounds.
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