Australian researchers have uncovered the world’s oldest biological colour in the Sahara desert, in a find they said on Tuesday helped explain why complex lifeforms only recently emerged on earth.

The pink pigments were produced by simple microscopic organisms called cyanobacteria more than 1.1 billion years ago, some 500 million years older than previous colour pigment discoveries.

That makes the samples around “fifteen times older” than the Tyrannosaurus Rex dinosaur species, according to Jochen Brocks of the Australian National University.

Earth itself is about 4.5 billion years old and researchers said the latest find shed light on why more sophisticated plant and animal life only came into existence 600 million years ago.

Scientists came across the samples accidently when an oil company drilling in the Taoudeni basin in West Africa sent them rocks for analysis. The pigments are fossilised relics of chlorophyll, a chemical that allows plants and some microscopic lifeforms to turn light into energy. Researchers said the pink pigment would have originally appeared blue-green to the human eye.

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