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The Cape York meteorite: Making an impact on Greenland

January 31, 2019


Emily Johnson

On the northwestern coast of Greenland, the Iron Age began hundreds of years before iron was brought to southern Greenland by Icelandic farmers (Wilken, 2015). Meteoric iron has been present in the region since at least 1000 CE, when a group of about 300 Inuit settled Melville Bay, which is bounded in the north by Cape York (Buchwald, 1975). These meteorite blocks attracted Inuit from across the Arctic, and tools made with fragments harvested from the Cape York meteorite allowed Arctic Inuit to progress from the Stone Age to the Iron Age (Huntington, 2002). Had there been no meteoric iron present in Melville Bay, the area may have never been successfully settled at all.

Inuit told the explorer Robert Peary in the late 1800s that legend was that the three major meteorite blocks were an Inuit woman who was thrown from the sky along with her dog and tent by the evil spirit Tornarsuk. It is possible this is true, but it is more likely that the Inuit were humoring Peary with the story he expected to hear – that they believed the rocks were meteoric in origin. As neither John Ross nor any other polar explorer ever recorded hearing a similar story, it is probable that the Inuit believed the iron blocks were simply natural deposits (Buchwald, 1975). For hundreds of years, these meteorite blocks were an indispensable resource for the small group of Inuit living in this barren part of the world. As explorers from abroad began to make their way north seeking a route to the pole in the 1800s, the Inuit gained access to resources through trade but lost a piece of their history. Most of the Cape York meteorite specimens are no longer in Greenland. Robert Peary took the Ahnighito (Tent), Woman, and Dog specimens, all three of which are now on display at the American Museum of Natural History, and Knud Rasmussen took Savik I to Copenhagen in 1925 (Wilken, 2015).

Modern resource extraction companies parallel the actions of 19th and 20th century Arctic explorers looking to benefit from Greenland’s natural resources at the expense of Greenlanders themselves, only this time on a much larger scale. Greenland is rich in lead, gold, zinc, iron, copper, rare earth elements, and oil. When Greenland voted for self-rule in 2009, foreign investors watched the election closely, hoping for rising support for the mining of these untapped resources. With a changing climate it has been estimated that by 2050 over 50% of the Arctic will be affected by development. Tight regulations will be necessary to prevent this development from negatively impacting Greenland’s environment and its society. Greenland’s natural resources have been exploited by outsiders in the past and are in danger of being exploited again. Policy related to the mining of newly accessible natural resources in Greenland must consider the rights of native Greenlanders to prevent them from being taken advantage of again.

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