A thousand-year-old Buddhist statue taken from Tibet in 1938 by an SS team seeking the roots of Hitler's Aryan doctrine was carved from a meteorite, scientists have reported.
In a paper published in an academic journal, German and Austrian researchers recount an extraordinary tale where archaeology, the Third Reich and cosmic treasure are intertwined like an Indiana Jones movie.
Called the Iron Man because of the high content of iron in its rock, the 24-centimetre-high statue was brought to Germany by an expedition led by Ernst Schaefer, a zoologist and ethnologist.
Backed by SS chief Heinrich Himmler and heading a team whose members are all believed to have been SS, Schaefer roamed Tibet in 1938-9 to search for the origins of Aryanism, the notion of racial superiority that underpinned Nazism.
Weighing 10.6 kilos, the statue features the Buddhist god Vaisravana seated, with the palm of his right hand outstretched and pointing downwards.
Chemical analysis shows that the rock from which it was carved came from a meteorite.
The rock survived a long trip through the Solar System and the destructive friction with the atmosphere when it collided with Earth.
It is a particularly rare kind of meteorite called an ataxite, which has iron and high contents of nickel, according to the study, published in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science.
"The statue was chiselled from an iron meteorite, from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15,000 years ago," said investigator Elmar Buchner of Stuttgart University.
"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.
Vaisravana was the Buddhist god-king of the North, also known as Jambhala in Tibet.
How Schaefer came across the statue is unclear, but the big appeal is likely to have been a large swastika, symbolising good fortune in Buddhism, carved on its chest.
Once the statue arrived in Munich, it became part of a private collection and only became available for study by Buchner following an auction in 2009.
Other meteorites have become incorporated into religious worship. The holy Black Stone in the Kaaba in Mecca is believed to be a stony meteorite.
"The Iron Man statue is the only known illustration of a human figure to be carved into a meteorite, which means we have nothing to compare it to when assessing value," said Buchner.
"Its origins alone may value it at US$20,000 (NZ$24,000). However, if our estimation of its age is correct and it is nearly a thousand years old it could be invaluable."