Geology And Geophysics

Rock of Ages Meteorite Namibia Hoba West



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Rock of Ages

We cannot speak of years, for to do so would bind the Rock to terrestrial parameters; and the Rock is not of the Earth. "Ages" would be a better term, and "Aeons" better still, neither being restricted in meaning to any specific reckoning of time. But inasmuch as we might regard an aeon as a unit of time, we may safely declare that its age must be counted in multiples of multiples.

We have no sure knowledge concerning the Rock's genesis or provenance. We may surmise, however, for present purposes, that it solidified from the swirling matrix of metallic plasma at the core of which our Sun was formed, by our reckoning some nine billion years ago. Countless other similar bodies formed in the gargantuan maelstrom, tiny fragments of builders' rubble adrift in orbit around the central vortex while the Sun and its family of planets and their satellite moons continued to take shape.

There was much jostling and collision amongst these fragments as they drifted, many being further fragmented by violent contact while others clung together under the influence of their mutual gravity to form conglomerates, a few eventually growing large enough to collapse under their own gravitation into spherical shape and assume the character of minor planets: tiny, airless and frigid worldlets doomed forever to circle their distant parent star. Yet, having been born out of the primeval mass of dust and gas that was the remnant of the cataclysmic explosion when another ancient but mighty star blew itself into oblivion aeons before, these bodies were and remain as much part of the solar system as the greatest planet, even the Sun itself.

In time, the immensity of the pressures accumulating at the heart of the maelstrom generated heat of such intensity that the core ignited; and a new star was born. At irregular intervals outward, eight smaller nodal vortices condensed to form planets, the inner four rocky in character, the outer much larger, remaining gaseous, although each with a solid inner core of indeterminate size. And, in their turn, five of these new worlds were graced with their own families of companion satellites.

Counting outward from the central Sun, the gap between the orbits of the fourth and fifth of the planets was significantly wider than any of the others, and it was within this hiatus that most of the minor planets, reckoned today to number some half-million, made their home. There were a few, however, mavericks that followed different orbits, entirely independent in their individual paths from all the rest. Many of these ventured too close to one or another of the major planets or their moons, were trapped by their gravitational forces and drifted inward, ever accelerating until they fell to fiery extinction, in the case of the inner four planets and of all the satellites often leaving immense craters as testament to their demise.

One such was the Rock that is the focus of this narrative; except that its fall from the depths of space did not culminate in its own extinction, nor did it create any devastation. Whereas most of its kind that suffered a similar fate fell at angles close to perpendicular with their targets' surface, this one's approach was almost tangential. Striking the planet's atmosphere at a speed that we would have reckoned as upward of seventy kilometres per second, it bounced and proceeded to skip numerous times, as happens when a flat stone is thrown with force and at a shallow angle across the surface of a pond. With each new encounter the atmosphere had a braking effect on the Rock's speed, so that it slowed and the intervals between bounces shortened progressively until its forward motion was finally halted and it began to plummet towards the surface, far below.

The laws of physics decree that any object in free fall through the atmosphere will accelerate until the upward drag exerted by its contact with the air becomes equal to the force of gravity, whereupon it reaches terminal velocity and its rate of fall will remain constant thereafter. Thus, falling now at a speed of no more than perhaps sixty metres per second, its passage through the atmosphere gave rise to no friction-generated escalation in temperature and the Rock struck home with a mighty concussion. But it did not shatter and caused no undue damage to the ground upon which it lay.

The ground upon which it lay and would continue to lie for all time henceforth amounted to a patch of sandy soil, some nine square metres in area, in the southwesterly heartland of a land mass that one day would be known as the continent of Africa.

* * * * * *

Qung Qai had been following the oryx since early morning when he had detected its spoor, visible on the hard ground only to eyes matchless in their keenness. He divined at a glance that it was a mature bull, well fed and in no way halt in any of its limbs. These were good signs: the clan would eat well, well enough to sustain them for fourteen days before the first pangs of hunger would again be felt.

All day long he had followed the spoor, moving at a constant lope, easy of pace and with the patience of ages. At one point he detected that the oryx had broken into a gallop when a lioness sprang from a nearby thicket and gave brief but only halfhearted chase. Her belly had been full, her action driven as much by want of sport as by hope of another meal. Once he had stopped in a dry riverbed at a point where his sense of smell told him the water was plentiful and near to the surface. He had quickly scooped out a hollow in the sand and waited while it filled to the depth of his hand before sucking the water up through a hollow reed, slaking his thirst and then replenishing the supply in the shell of an ostrich egg that he carried in the pouch at his side.

As he rose to his feet, something to the east of him caught his attention. Not far off, something was falling from the sky; something large and black, yet glinting irregularly as the tumbling motion of its fall caused an oscillation in its reflection of the light of the westering Sun.

As Qung Qai watched, the object struck home and he saw a huge cloud of sand and dust rise high into the air. Then followed the blast: a low-pitched, gut-thumping concussion, accompanied by a trembling of the earth that persisted for several seconds. The interval between sight and the sound of its strike told Qung Qai that the object would not be very far off, so he deviated from the direction in which the spoor of the oryx was leading him to investigate. When, perhaps a half-hour later, he came upon it, he stood regarding it for long seconds, an expression of sheer amazement creasing his already sun-wrinkled face. The object was huge, larger than an elephant, although in height reaching no higher than his shoulder. It was black in colour and generally rock-like in appearance, but certainly unlike any rock that he had ever seen. With a sense almost of reverence he approached to within touching distance and ran his fingers over its surface. It was smooth to the touch and with a texture entirely different from stone - metallic, but Qung Qai could not have identified it as such, metal of any kind being an element yet unknown to his people.

The Sun now setting in the west, Qung Qai decided to sleep beside the Rock; he would pick up the oryx's spoor in the morning and resume his hunt. He wrapped himself in his kaross, the impala hide that served as a blanket, and lay down on the bare earth. He was soon asleep, his dreams haunted by visions of mountainous boulders, drifting around through all eternity amongst the stars, in the realm of his revered ancestors.

Qung Qai duly returned to his clan, his pouches well filled with the meat of his oryx. Over their first meal he related to his people the strange circumstance of the huge rock that had fallen from the sky and led them to it, his uncanny pathfinding instinct leading him in a straight path across the almost featureless semi-desert. When they arrived, the air crackled for a long time with the clicking blizzard of their excited chatter as they discussed the find. There was little dissention on the matter of the object's provenance: it was unlike anything any of them had seen before; it had come from the sky, the realm of the Sun and the Moon and the stars and the spirits of their ancestors, and was therefore sacred. It must be left undisturbed, the place avoided for fear of earning the displeasure of the Spirits. On their wanderings they told other clans of what they had seen, who in turn told others, and a legend was born. It was agreed by all that to venture to the place of the Rock would be to court disaster of unimaginable magnitude. And so it was left in peace.

Thus the Rock lay undisturbed as the seasons rolled. Years merged into centuries, centuries into millennia, while nature moved inexorably onward along its random course, disinterested and with the utterly impartial patience of an ageless universe, for which the passing of a million years amounts to less than a transient sigh in the life of a man.

Dust settled daily on and around the Rock. High winds deposited layer upon layer of sand, gradually lifting the level of the plain's surface until, eventually, the Rock was all but buried. But still it lay there, virtually impervious to the forces of erosion that over a commensurate period would reduce the softer native rocks of Earth to sand.

Through all this time, but for the last tick of the clock by which the age of the planet from its birth to the present is measured, the !Kung San, the people of whom Qung Qai and his clan had been a tiny yet integral part, were the only human occupants of these vast, arid plains of southwest Africa. Their numbers remained more or less constant, swelling and declining within a narrow range as they lived out their lives at one with nature and as much a part of it as the oryx, the lion, the birds of the air, even the air itself. In time a new race moved into the area from the north; a people much taller and larger in stature than the San and darker, almost ebony of colour. Their arrival made no difference to the mode of living of the San, though, and what mutual contact they made was generally harmonious.

But then, far to the south, another breed of men appeared. Also much larger in stature than the native inhabitants and with the means and proclivity to bend nature to their will, they spread like a slow and noxious plague across the plains and hills and valleys. Wherever they trod, they changed the landscape, decimating the game and claiming ownership over vast tracts, delineated by lines drawn on sheets of paper, their proprietorship confirmed by yet other sheets of paper that guaranteed absolute fiefdom and the right to use or abuse the soil in whatever way they saw fit.

In time, these newcomers and the San made mutual contact and one of the great genocidal atrocities in the bloodstained history of mankind ensued. The San had no understanding of land ownership. The land to them belonged to all who dwelt upon it, man and beast, in equal measure. They bitterly resented the arrogance of these pale-skinned, strangely clad newcomers in proclaiming themselves lords over huge areas of land where for all time the San had been free to hunt and wander at will, gathering honey and whatever else was needed to sustain their simple lives.

But the principal outrage was in that the landowners laid claim to all water sources on their territory, to the exclusion of all but their own livestock and those who had kinship with them or who were in their employ. All others, seeking no more than to slake their thirst or fill an ostrich egg shell, were driven off with mindless brutality, sometimes even slain by those deadly thunder-rods with their evil propensity to kill from afar. In a land where drought was the eternal order of existence, this was a crime that could not be forgiven.

Also, the game was diminishing, being hunted as much for sport as for the need for sustenance. Hunger, always a threat, now became commonplace and the San saw no alternative other than to slaughter the occasional beast from the herds of the farmers, which raised their anger to murderous fury. Raids were organized and the perpetrators hunted down with ruthless efficiency. The thunder-rods spoke again and again, often leaving entire clans lying dead in the sun, food for the jackals, the hyenas and the vultures.

Retribution was sought, but conducted on an individual basis; for organized warfare was a thing unknown to the San. With the inbred, uncanny efficiency of their kind a hunter would stalk his target, approaching unobserved even on the barest terrain to within fifty paces of his quarry. From this range he would let fly his arrow, its head of flint tipped with a deadly concoction of snake and spider venom mixed into a brew of sap from various herbs and an essence prepared from a grub identified by the shamans of the most ancient times for its lethal quality. Once fired from the hunter's small, exquisitely crafted bow, the arrow would almost certainly find its mark and the victim's fate was sealed. The poison would go remorselessly to work and a grown man would certainly be dead before nightfall on the following day.

Amongst the farmers it was universally agreed: they could not coexist with the San. The little people of the plains, Bushmen as they now were called, came to be regarded as vermin and were killed on sight. Parties armed with guns and mounted on horseback hunted them down and butchered them, leaving no clan member alive, man, woman or child. Thus the few remaining groups withdrew to remoter, less hospitable areas and the people, for so many centuries the only human inhabitants of this part of the African continent, eventually all but ceased to exist.

With the new order now firmly established, the face of Africa changed. Whereas since the beginning of time the only boundaries had been the ones imposed by two mighty oceans that lapped the shores to the east, west and south, now new borders were decreed. Some of these were defined by natural features, others arbitrarily drawn on maps and delineated on the ground by wire fences that stretched in arrow-straight lines across the arid plains, some over distances that would take a man weeks to travel on horseback.

Thus, in the year 1892, the colony of German South West Africa came into being. Twenty-three years later, in a minor skirmish that is nevertheless recorded as part of the action that constituted the Great War, the territory was occupied by forces from the Union of South Africa, to whom, following cessation of hostilities in 1918, it was mandated with a brief to administer it, effectively as an extension of its own sovereignty. Eventually, in 1990, after much bickering and argument it was proclaimed a fully constituted country: the Republic of Namibia, so named for its largest and most defining feature, the Namib Desert.

The country is vast, listed thirty-fourth in the world in order of size, and could comfortably encompass Great Britain within less than a third of its area - although its entire population might be transported to any one of perhaps a score of the Earth's largest cities without diminishing its elbow room to any discernible degree. The country boasts but one city of any size - Windhoek, the capital - and a paltry sprinkling of towns of smaller size. For the rest, most of its people eke out an existence in a state of extreme poverty or by tending the sheep and cattle on the white-owned farms that dot the landscape in the areas suitable for such enterprise It is on one such farm, situated near to the small town of Grootfontein in the Otjozondjupa region, that we again encounter the Rock.

Jacobus Brits, a tenant on the farm Hoba West, had risen shortly after daybreak and set off with his rifle in hand in the hope of shooting a buck to replenish his family's dwindling meat supply. Round about mid-morning, perhaps while examining the soil in the hope of picking up a spoor, he noticed a low, flat rock that was distinctly different from any of the others that dotted the earth on the farm. Intrigued, he knelt before it and ran the palm of his hand over its surface. Indeed, he soon realized, his curiosity was well justified. This rock was black, whereas all others in the close vicinity were whitish, of limestone. He moistened his fingers and rubbed the surface, wiping away the dust. It had a distinct gloss to it: the texture was metallic - iron, he guessed, or something very similar.

He realized that what he could see of the object was merely the upper surface of something probably very much larger, the bulk of it buried beneath the soil. Further examination was definitely called for. Abandoning his hunt, he hurried home and returned after a few hours armed with a freshly sharpened cold chisel and a four-pound club hammer. Setting to work with a will and with patient determination, he eventually succeeded in cutting off a piece, which, the next day, he took to the branch office in Grootfontein of the South West Africa Company. The manager examined the fragment and soon identified it with near certainty as being of meteoritic origin. After hearing Brits's account of how he had come by the object, he asked him to excavate around the parent body, upon completion of which he would pay a visit to the farm and conduct a fuller examination.

As it happened, the greater part of the excavation was done by Brits's wife. This would not be particularly surprising to anyone familiar with the kind of woman that Mrs Brits undoubtedly was. Of strong Afrikaner pioneer stock, hard physical labour was her daily lot and she would have tackled the task with a will, in all probability accomplishing it in no more time than it would have taken her husband or any of the farm laborers. Be that as it may, in due course the manager of the SWA Company duly arrived at Hoba West, conducted a meticulous examination of the Rock and concluded that his initial identification had been correct: the object was without any doubt a meteorite. He then measured it and found it to be almost square, roughly ten feet by ten, and 39 inches thick.

In due course samples cut from the huge meteorite were subjected to assay and found to be composed principally of iron and nickel in the ratio 81.29 percent to 17.49 percent, and the remaining 1.22 percent composed of cobalt and traces of various other metals. From this information it was calculated that its weight would have been rather more than 60 tons. It was also acknowledged that this was by far the largest meteorite ever found on Earth.

There followed much correspondence and discussion relating to such matters as ownership, its intrinsic value (if indeed it had any, beyond its obvious status as an object of curiosity) and whether it should be left where it lay or conveyed, perhaps, to the South African museum in Cape Town. The first of these questions was never finally resolved and it was eventually proclaimed a national treasure under the protection of the State. The second was posed by the owner of the farm Hoba West, one Michael Hanssen, in a letter to the Director of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, who forwarded it to Dr AW Rogers of the South African Geological Survey. Dr Rogers replied in a rather patronizing tone, saying that the value of any meteorite depended solely on what a museum might be prepared to pay for it and added that one could hardly "quote a price as one can for sheep or cattle."

The third question was settled by simple practicality and the logistics of the matter: the meteorite was just too heavy for its removal to any destination even to be considered.

Over ensuing years the Rock was vandalized to some extent by souvenir hunters who cut pieces from it to place, perhaps, on their mantelpieces as mementoes of their visit to this "messenger from the stars." Recognition of this practice led the government, in 1955, to declare the Hoba West Meteorite a national monument, with any interference with its integrity expressly forbidden. Thirty-two years later an impressive circular stone amphitheatre was constructed around it, creating a national heritage site that is properly maintained and controlled, stringently protecting the Meteorite from any further damage.

So there it lies, and no doubt will continue to lie for all time henceforward. Seasons will come and go, the years merging into centuries, centuries into millennia, millennia into aeons. Sooner or later mankind will cease to exist, as all species must do eventually, except that it is entirely possible that this specie's demise will be brought about in consequence to its own folly. Whenever it happens and how, we may be sure that Nature will shrug a disinterested shoulder and with the patience of ages set about repairing the damage wrought by an experiment that didn't work too well.

Ice ages will come and go and, in time, it is inevitable that an asteroid of mountainous size will strike the Earth, in a cataclysmic concussion similar to the one that struck sixty-four million years ago to effect the extinction of entire species of creatures, principal among them the race we categorize as the Dinosaurs. This may or may not happen before the last human on Earth has breathed his last: we have no way of knowing. Either way, when the dust has finally settled, bringing to an end the global winter that will have enshrouded the planet perhaps for decades, when the Sun reappears it will shine on a world vastly different from what it was before the long night fell. But, here and there, pockets of life will have survived. Nature will reassert itself, new organisms will arise, evolve, live their span and, eventually, depart. Amongst those new organisms, perhaps, one might develop the propensity to reason, a spark that might ignite into a flame that will swell in time into the vibrant conflagration of full-blown intelligence; and a new civilization might arise.

Perhaps, by this time, the stupendous changes that have been wrought over the ages might have altered the planet's climate to the extent that one-time deserts will now bear lush grassland, even luxuriant rainforest. It would be no insurmountable task for the forces of nature to reverse the flow of the present-day Benguella current, an event that would transform the Namib Desert and its marginally less arid hinterland into a tropical paradise. Whether or not such an eventuality should occur, of one thing we may be sure: in precisely the same spot as where today it lies, the Rock whose history these pages have explored will lie there still.

Buried perhaps under unknown fathoms of the rubble of ages, there it will lie. And there it will continue to lie, even after the last vestige of life of any kind has been burnt to ashes by the all-consuming furnace of the dying Sun, swelling inexorably into red gianthood. Only when the Earth itself has eventually been consumed will the Rock return to the element out of which it formed, vaporize and finally cease to exist.

But, for the nonce, let us recognize it for what it is, and cherish it.

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