Iron, Harpoon Tips, and Peary

For me, Earth’s Poles stand at the edge of space. The atmosphere and the magnetosphere are thinnest there, opening the door to solar winds and awesome northern lights shows. Greenland and its neighborhood are a bridge between the Solar System and ourselves.

Greenland had its own iron age – but unlike a “normal” iron age where you mine iron ore and extract the iron, Greenland’s iron was served ready to use via several huge meteorites from outer space. The Inuit learned to flake the large, alien stones, and to shape small iron tools and hunting implements, well before the Norse brought their “normal” iron along. You could say this is a clear example of an extraterrestrial influence in human development!

Three fragments from a particularly large meteorite, which landed in the Cape York area (a spot at the other end of where I will be in Greenland with respect to the center of Greenland) had their own names: Tent, Woman, and Dog. The larger fragment weighed about a dozen SUVs. Archeologists have estimated the Inuit used 70 tons of big and small rocks to flake and hammer iron chunks into shape. Ugh; where is the Easy button?

Many explorers heard about these meteorites starting in the early 1800s and looked for them. It was Peary, particularly effective in developing relationships with the Greenlandic Inuit, who got to see the rocks first. How does Peary react to his discovery? Does he take pictures? Does he make his own harpoon tip with a chunk of meteorite, just for kicks? Does he write a superb anthropological compte rendu on the uniqueness of Greenland’s iron age? Not quite. He wants to cart them rocks home. Souvenir!

Peary succeeded. It took building a road. It took building a railroad. But after three years of toil and ingenuity the three meteorite fragments were on their way to America. He sold them and they brought him more fame. You can see Tent at the American Museum of Natural History, in Washington, DC.

What stays with me is this vision of the three large, dark, alien rocks sticking out of the snow and the ice, mired in frozen fog, at the edge of the known universe. The Inuit, masters of life at the edge, find them, recognize their potential, and put their extraterrestrial iron to use. Century after century, the three meteorites, born somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, deliver their bounty.

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