Mar 20, 2015

People of the Arctic worked meteorite iron 1,200 years ago





About 10,000 years ago a big meteorite fell to the Earth on northern Greenland and broke apart. About 1,300 years Dorset Culture people in the Innaanganeq or Cape York Peninsula area of Greenland began extracting iron from it. Ironfromthesky.org says the meteorite was apparently a valuable commodity, and the people walked three days to take iron from it using stone tools.
Harpoon tip of the Cape York Peninsula (geni photo, Wikimedia Commons)

The Inuit people settled Greenland about 3,000 years ago, scientists believe. Inuit people of the Thule Culture moved to Cape York Peninsula in the 8th century and took over the iron trade across the eastern Arctic region from the Dorset people. Some iron pieces from this meteorite have been found as far away as Canada halfway to Alaska, says ScienceNordic.com.

This time frame of the 9th to 12th centuries is later than the Iron Age of Eurasia, which began as long ago as 3,400 years. Another difference is that some European and Asian people mined the earth for iron ore as opposed to taking it from meteorites.

Recently a team of archaeologists and geologists began studying how humans exploited the Cape York meteorite. Martin Appelt, an archaeologist with the National Museum of Denmark, and others visited northern Greenland’s Cape York.

Appelt said he thinks one reason for the Dorset people’s decline was the arrival of Thule people and their appropriation of the iron trade, which may have ruptured the Dorset trading and social networks.

“For the archaeologists, he says, it has been a fantastic resource to examine, because the chemical composition of meteoritic iron sets it apart from other types. This made it possible, using the meteoric iron, to establish contacts over huge distances and to assess whether a piece of iron over in Canada came from the Cape York meteorite or some other source,” says ScienceNordic.com in a story under the title “Greenland’s Iron Age came from space.”
Detail of an Iron OM-IIa meteorite from Cape York, Greenland, retrieved in 1818. On display at the Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Captmondo)

The iron had to be processed before Inuit people could use it as tools. There are piles of stones that have marks on them all around the meteorite to extract iron to make arrowheads, harpoon blades or knives. Some of the stone piles contain 70 tons of iron-working stone tools, it was estimated. The people who worked the meteorite built temporary shelters to stay in while they worked there.

"They did a heck of a lot of hammering! The blacksmiths would start by knocking off a small piece, thoroughly beating it flat and giving it a sharp edge, then hardening it further so that it could serve as an arrowhead or flensing knife," ScienceNordic quotes Jens Fog Jensen, archaeologist at the National Museum of Denmark, as saying.

People used basalt to work the iron. Some basalt pieces were apparently hammers that could be held in the hand, and others were as large as 88 pounds (40 kg) and apparently were used as anvils or a surface upon which to work the metal. The rocks had to be carried 31 miles (50 km).

Ironfromthesky.org says there is debate as to how iron from the meteorite was obtained, either by using stones to split and fragment smaller pieces of iron off of the meteorite or by collecting natural small fragments produced by the impact and then using large pieces of the meteorite as an anvil to work fragments with stone.

As no one ever witnessed the Inuit methods of meteorite iron working we cannot be certain as to the method used, although microstructural analysis of chemistry and texture of these tools does give us further clues and this is made more complicated by some iron tools coming into Cape York via trade, hence scientific analysis is crucial in deriving an understanding of the use of meteorite iron at Cape York.

The scientists going to Cape York to study the meteorite and iron artifacts should be able to provide some of that analysis.

In 1817 an Inuit Greenlander named Zakaeus stowed away on a British Ship anchored in Disko Bay and reached Scotland. He learned English and caught the attention of John Ross, an Arctic explorer planning an expedition to the Thule area. Zakaeus was the expedition’s interpreter and helped Ross get information about meteorites, tools, hammer stones and place names.
Tent meteorite at Cape York (Robert Peary Archives photo, Wikimedia Commons)

Other explorers removed pieces of the meteorites. Some of the pieces have names, including Ahnighito (the Tent), Woman and Dog removed by Robert Peary. Those may be seen at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Knud Rasmussen took the piece known as Savik with him to Copenhagen.

The Inuit people were protective of their iron and meteorite, but Peary persuaded them to reveal where they were. He stole the aforementioned three meteorite pieces and took them to New York. Peary also took a small group of Inuit people to study back with him to New York in 1894. He meant to return them to Cape York the following year. They all died but one.

Cape York meteorite Ahnighito in American Museum of Natural History (Fermion photo, Wikimedia Commons)

By Mark Miller
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