A young African tribesman was walking near the Orange River in what is now South Africa in 1868 when he discovered a glassy stone that caught his fancy.
The youth, known today only as Swartboy, took the stone to a local man, who was known to like colorful rocks, in hopes of exchanging it for a night's lodging. Schalk van Niekerk, so the story goes, astonished Swartboy when he offered to trade all of his livestock, including 500 sheep, 10 cows and a horse, for the stone.
It wasn't the first diamond discovered in southern Africa, but at that point it was the most spectacular, an 83.5-carat gem that Van Niekerk sold for a small fortune, setting off a frantic and ruthless quest for riches.
All these years later, scientists still puzzle over forces buried in the Earth that shaped those diamonds, because those same forces also built a continent. As a result, teams of scientists are now wrapping up an ambitious, interdisciplinary study of the same region where Swartboy found that nifty rock.
Reading Earth's Surface
The research isn't focused on diamonds, but diamonds play a role, and it's possible that the high tech equipment used to probe the region more than 150 miles below the Earth's surface may also help modern fortune hunters find new sources of diamonds. But that's not what the scientists set out to do.
"The scientific goal was to try and understand how continents form on Earth," says Richard W. Carlson of the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, principal investigator on the multinational project. The research has been underway in southern Africa for four years now, and it probably wouldn't have happened there had it not been for the diamonds.
For more than a century now the Earth's crust has been probed, mined and gutted in that area in the relentless search for diamonds. Part of the legacy of that quest is a massive amount of geological data about the region, and the mysterious geological structures that brought the diamonds to the surface in the first place.
So in 1996 Carlson and colleagues at Carnegie and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology proposed a major study of southern Africa to see what they could learn about the forces that built continents, as well as diamonds. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the field work has been completed. Preliminary findings were published in the July 1 issue of Geophysical Research Letters, but it will take years for the scientists to analyze all their data.
This is a difficult area for scientists to study, because they can't put their instruments 150 miles below the ground, so they are left with indirect ways of studying it, such as rocks heaved to the surface during a violent eruption long, long ago. But there is one tool that lends itself well to determining what lies so far beneath the surface — earthquakes.
When a fault moves, it sends out seismic shock waves that travel clear through the Earth. By measuring the time it takes those waves to travel through certain areas, scientists are able to create images through a process known as "seismic tomography," which is actually quite similar to CAT scans used in medical imaging.
But since seismic stations are normally spread all over the planet, usually at great distances from each other, the images are very low in resolution, offering researchers the big picture, but few details.
The Planet, in 3-D