It’s almost impossible to imagine what the world looked like 1.1 billion years ago. We can conjure dramatic scenes of dinosaurs lording over the earth, strange landscapes, and volatile volcanoes, but we rarely consider the pigments that defined that world; and as it turns out, there was a whole lot of pink.
A team of researchers from the Australian National University have discovered the oldest known colors produced by living things, by grinding up pieces of marine shale. Belonging to cyanobacteria and used in photosynthesis, the pigments were found in shale of the Taoudeni Basin in Mauritania, and resemble the color of sunrise.
It’s thought that this batch of bacteria died and sunk down to the seafloor, where it fossilized. It remained there, preserved underground until about 10 years ago when a mining company dug it up. The molecules were discovered by Ph.D. student Nur Gueneli. “When held against the sunlight, they are actually a neon pink,” senior researcher Jochen Brocks told the BBC.
The pink pigment gives us an idea of what maritime life may have looked like a billion years ago. “The precise analysis of the ancient pigments,” said Gueneli in a press release, “confirmed that tiny cyanobacteria dominated the base of the food chain in the oceans…this helps to explain why animals did not exist at that time.” Apparently, the pink-hued bacteria simply wasn’t appetizing enough to constitute a meal, or sustain the diets of larger marine animals.