A Buddhist statue brought to Germany from Tibet by a Nazi-backed expedition has been confirmed as having an extraterrestrial origin.
Known as the "iron man," the 24-cm high sculpture may represent the god Vaiśravaṇa and was likely created from a piece of the Chinga meteorite that was strewn across the border region between Russia and Mongolia between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago, according to Elmar Buchner of the University of Stuttgart, and his colleagues.
In a paper published in Metoritics & Planetary Science, the team reports their analysis of the iron, nickel, cobalt and trace elements of a sample from the statue, as well as its structure. They found that the geochemistry of the artifact is a match for values known from fragments of the Chinga meteorite. The piece turned into the iron man would be the third largest known from that fall.
Given the extreme hardness of the meteorite – "basically an inappropriate material for producing sculptures" the paper notes – the artist or artists who created it may have known their material was special, the researchers say. Buchner suggests it could have been produced by the 11th century Ben culture but the exact origin and age of the statue – as opposed to the meteorite it is made from – is still unknown. It is thought to have been brought to Germany by a Nazi-backed expedition to Tibet in 1938-39. The swastika symbol on the piece – a version of which was adopted by the Nazi party – may have encouraged the 1938 expedition to take it back with them.
"While the first debris was officially discovered in 1913 by gold prospectors, we believe that this individual meteorite fragment was collected many centuries before," said Buchner in a statement. "The Iron Man statue is the only known illustration of a human figure to be carved into a meteorite."
Although this item may be the only known human figure carved into a rock fallen to earth, other meteorites have also been used by many religions across the world. A 15-ton example in North America called the Willamette meteorite is sacred to some native Americans, while some have suggested that the Black Stone in the Kaaba in Mecca is a meteorite.
This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on September 26, 2012.