The statue is some 24 centimeters tall, weighs 10.6 kilograms and depicts a male figure presumed to be the Buddhist god Vaisravana. It is believed to be 1,000 years old and it is made out of a material almost as hard as steel.
Dubbed the Iron Man, researchers have now figured out exactly what that material is: meteorite. They published their findings in the journal Meteorics and Planetary Science on Thursday. Furthermore, the chemical make-up of the material reveals that it comes from the Chinga meteorite which slammed into the border region between Siberia and Mongolia some 15,000 years ago. Fragments of the meteorite have previously been found in the region.
According to an interdisciplinary research team, it is the only human figure ever to have been found that is carved out of meteorite stone.
The material's hardness comes from its high iron content in addition to containing some 16 percent nickel. Geologist Elmar Buchner from the University of Stuttgart, the primary author of the study, says the result is a material similar to steel.
By now, the statue is well-travelled. It was brought to Europe in the late 1930s by Ernst Schäfer, a zoologist and ethnologist who visited Tibet on an expedition funded by the Nazis: Schäfer and his team were exploring the roots of the Aryan race.
Soon to Be on Public Display
Most probably, the team took the iron man with them because of the ancient Hindu swastika, a symbol of good luck and success, on his stomach. The Nazis, of course, used a right-facing swastika as a symbol of the Aryan race.
According to Buchner, Schäfer had returned to Germany with a catalogue of objects found on the expedition, many of which were decorated with swastikas. But since this catalogue is no longer complete, it is unclear where Schäfer found the statue and how he came to bring it back to Europe.
The statue then disappeared into a private collection for decades and was only brought to the attention of experts several years ago.
Meteorites are considered in many cultures to be heavenly signs. In some places, the rocks are worshipped as holy objects, for example, by Native Americans in North America and the Aborigines in Australia. Knives and other objects made from meteorites, including bird figures, have been found in a wide range of locations. But the depiction of a human figure is thus far unique.
The scientists have not been able to answer when exactly the statue was made. They presume it dates to the 11th century in the region of modern-day Tibet, and was made with a great deal of effort, because the artist had to work with the extremely hard material. He covered a large portion of the front part with a golden gild.
Now that the scientists have determined the exceptional origin of the statue, they want to make it available to the public. "We plan to have it become part of a permanent collection in a museum, where it can be exhibited," Buchner says.