The fossilised remains of the oldest known lifeforms on Earth have been discovered in samples of rock collected near a remote watering hole in the middle of the Australian Outback.
Scientists said the microscopic fossils belonged to primitive bacteria that lived more than 3.4 billion years ago, when the Earth had emerged from a period when it was probably too hostile for life.
The primitive microbes used sulphur instead of oxygen to generate energy from food and, the scientists said, they may be the closest science will ever get to the mysterious origin of life on Earth.
The fossils were found in rocks that were originally formed in shallow seas and suggest beaches may have been the key habitat where Earth's first lifeforms thrived, said David Wacey, of the University of Western Australia.
"The environment in which the microfossils were found is important - it extends the record of life in shoreline or beach-like environments by about 200 million years.
This suggests that beaches could have been the setting for the origin of life itself," he said.
"The discovery gives good solid evidence for life over 3.4 billion years ago. It confirms there were bacteria at this time, living without oxygen."
The Earth is estimated to be about 4.5 billion years old but the planet's hostile, meteorite-bombarded environment is thought to have been too inhospitable for life to get going until about 3.8 billion years ago.
The latest microfossils have been subjected to exhaustive tests which confirmed they were once living cells. They were found in rock sandwiched between layers from two well-dated volcanic eruptions, which narrowed the fossils' date of origin to within a few tens of millions of years.