James Hutton, a physician-farmer and one of the founders of the science of geology, wrote in 1788, “The result, therefore, of our present inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, — no prospect of an end.” Although this may now sound like an overstatement, it nicely expresses the tremendous intellectual leap required when geologic time was finally and forever severed from the artificial limits imposed by the length of the human lifetime.
It is currently possible to date igneous and metamorphic rocks by a variety of radiometric methods to within a million years, but establishing the depositional age of sedimentary rocks has remained exceedingly difficult.
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The problem is most pronounced for Precambrian rocks, where the low diversity and abundance of organisms have prevented the establishment of any meaningful biostratigraphic framework for correlating strata.
Also, most Precambrian successions have been metamorphosed, rendering original minerals and textures difficult to interpret, and resetting diagenetic minerals.