I’ve always maintained that if someone wants to know the solar system, study meteorites. They are literally the left over building blocks of our solar system and give us an unparalleled insight into the solar nebula from which our planet and the others formed. We can use mathematical models to hypothesize the accretionary process, but the chemical composition of meteorites and chondrules help us to constrain the results.
Meteorites become even more impressive when we look at how they’ve influenced the human species over the course of our relatively short history. Meteorites were often considered messengers from whatever gods were worshiped by people in that area. Some stony meteorites were carved into religious figures, while the iron meteorites were turned into jewelry or even the first metal hunting weapons. Regardless of the civilization, from Egyptian to North American Indian tribes, meteorites served to connect people to their deities.
A new paper in the September 2012 Meteoritics and Planetary Science, Buddha from space, further explores this interesting topic by looking at one religious figure in particular, the Hindu god Kubera (or Vaisravana in Buddhism). This god is considered the Lord of wealth and North-direction and can be found on many statues. This article from MAPS looks at one that is possibly carved out of the iron meteorite, Chinga.
The Chinga meteorite was discovered around 1913 in the Tana-Tuva region of Mongolia and Siberia. Researchers have used glacial depositional features to estimate that Chinga landed in the region approximately 20,000 years ago. Based on the best known age of the swastika, the statue itself is probably around 3,000 years old. In 1938 it was recovered by Ernst Shafer while on an expedition for the German National Socialist Party.
This statue is unique for a couple reasons: 1) it’s an ataxite. This type of iron meteorite is composed of at least 16%-30% nickel, and as such, doesn’t display that beautiful cross-hatched widmanstatten pattern for which iron meteorites are known. They also are among the rarest of iron’s and don’t fit easily into a classification scheme. 2) It’s thought by historians that this little figure is what gave rise to the swastika symbol used by the Nazi’s.
Based on their chemical analysis, Buchner et al., were able to conclude that the statue was made from an ataxite. However, the concentrations of certain elements puts it into an ungrouped category (of which Chinga is part of). When classifying irons, meteoriticists look for the weight percent of Fe, Ni, Co, Cr, Ga, and Ge. It’s that quantity that allows for an iron meteorite to be grouped with others, or even allows us to determine if it belongs in its own group. The researchers do report some problems with the Ga and Ge readings, but they attribute this to the very small sample they had to work with from the statue.