A mysterious 1,000-year-old Buddhist statue with a history that sounds like an Indiana Jones film plot was carved from a meteorite, researchers have discovered.
The 24cm-tall figure was stolen from Tibet in 1938 by a Nazi team who were looking for the origins of Adolf Hitler's Aryan race. A large swastika, which was carved on the chest of the figure, may have enticed the German expedition leaders.
The swastika symbolizes good fortune in Buddhism and the ancient symbol was adopted by the Nazis, who modified it into a mirror-image form. The expedition was supported by SS chief Heinrich Himmler who believed the roots of Aryanism - the notion of racial superiority that underpinned Nazism - could be found in Tibet.
The figure, called the Iron Man because of the high content of iron in its rock, was brought to Germany by a team headed by zoologist and ethnologist Ernst Schafer. It is not known exactly how the statue was found, but after being transported there it became part of a private collection in Munich. Scientists were only able to study it after an auction in 2007.
The statue weighs 10.6kg (23.3lb) and features the Buddhist god Vaisravana seated, with the palm of his right hand outstretched and pointing downwards. Experts led by Dr Elmar Buchner, from the University of Stuttgart, analysed samples of the figure and found it was made of a rare kind of meteorite called an ataxite, which has iron and high contents of nickel.
The rock survived a long trip through the Solar System and the destructive friction with the atmosphere when it collided with Earth. "The statue was chiselled from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago," Dr Buchner said.
"While the first debris was officially discovered in 1913 by gold prospectors, we believe that this individual meteorite fragment was collected many centuries before." The exact dating of the carving cannot be established accurately, but its style links it to the pre-Buddhist Bon culture of the 11th century in Tibet, according to the study published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.
Meteorites inspire worship from many ancient cultures, ranging from the Inuit of Greenland to Australian aborigines. (source)