Hematite, a Shape-shifting Mineral From the Stone Age

hematite with its telltale red streak
A specimen of hematite, with its telltale red streak, is shown. It was mined in Ouro Preto, Minas Gerais state, Brazil. Walter Geiersperger/Getty Images

As the foremost source of iron ores on the planet, hematite has shaped civilizations for thousands of years. The mineral was first used as the main pigment in cave paintings often having a reddish hue, a signature trait of hematite.

Later, it was — and still is — the primary source of iron, shifting the world out of the Stone Age and into the Iron Age. While hematite comes in many different shapes, sizes, colors and forms, it always streaks red, leading it to garner the nickname "bloodstone." The reddish hue is the reason for its name too, based on the Greek word for blood, haima.

The stone can look silver-gray, black, brown or red, shine in the form of metallic crystals or be as dull as a reddish rough rock. Hematite even has extraterrestrial importance. It's the main reason that the planet Mars is red; roughly 10-15 percent of its soil is made up of the mineral.

What Is Hematite?

Hematite is an iron oxide in its base form that is 70 percent iron and 30 percent oxygen, and has the chemical formula of Fe2O3. As one of the most abundant minerals on the planet, it is perfect for mining to produce iron and iron-based derivatives like steel.

Even though it is plentiful, hematite isn't usually found on Earth on its own; rather it is generally found mixed together with other minerals like magnetite.

Hematite stone "forms as a reaction of hot magmas with surrounding materials and likely eroded into concentrated layers of downdip sedimentary beds, separating out via gravity distribution. Hematite can also precipitate out of lake waters forming a bed on lake bottoms," says Brad LeBlanc, senior geoscientist for Sweet Lake Land & Oil, an oil refinery in Louisiana, in an email interview.

Red ochre clay
Red ochre, clay that is colored by varying amounts of hematite, is seen inside the Serra Gelada Natural Park, in Alicante, Spain. The red ochre was often used in cave paintings. Eve Livesey/Getty Images

As hematite can be formed in different ways, it can have different physical traits. For anyone learning geology, this makes the rock rather hard to identify based on just appearance alone.

Intuitively it's not easy to think that a rainbow metallic crystal is actually the same kind of mineral as a black rough specimen, but these are both forms of hematite.

The Bloodstone

The mineral does have one big "tell," though, and it harkens back to its nickname of "bloodstone." Regardless of how hematite looks, due to its high iron and oxygen content, when it's scratched against anything it always leaves a red powder.

"If you're unsure about the specimen in your hands you can scratch it against something – and if it streaks reddish to reddish brown it's likely hematite," says LeBlanc.

How Hematite Was Formed

Back when Earth was covered in primordial oceans about 2.4 billion years ago, there was naturally an abundance of iron in the water. When early aquatic plant life that could process sunlight and undergo photosynthesis started forming, the oceans began filling with oxygen.

This oxygen bound with the iron in the water, forming rust particles. Over time, these sank to the bottom of the ocean's floor, compressing into banded iron ore deposits which are the primary source of hematite today. This accumulation continued for hundreds of millions of years.

Along with hematite in these sedimentary iron deposits, there's also magnetite, another primary source of iron, with a slightly different chemical formula of Fe3O4. The mixing of these two minerals in different quantities is one of the ways hematite can take on different forms.

Uses for Hematite

While hematite is mainly mined for iron, there are several other uses for the mineral going back to the earliest civilizations.

Hematite is one of the main ingredients of "red ochre," a pigment used for paints, makeup, glazes and early cave drawings in paleolithic eras. Rust and rust-derived minerals naturally hue red, so early civilizations always had access to this color. Red ochre was also used in paintings of the Renaissance era.

Since hematite can present itself in highly metallic and crystalline forms, it's also used in jewelry. When polished or tumbled, the mineral can give off a smooth metallic appearance, making it perfect for beads of all shapes and sizes.

hematite stones
Polished hematite stones like the one on the left are used in jewelry and also by alternative healers. Joao Paulo Burini/Getty Images

The mineral has also been used as a "healing stone" that is said to bring relief from medical problems like anemia, leg cramps and insomnia. These claims, though, have no scientific basis.

But there is a real medical use for hematite: It can stop X-rays and so it is used in radiation shielding for medical equipment.

However, these other uses for hematite don't make up a significant portion of the mineral's use overall, not when compared with iron production.

While hematite can be found virtually everywhere in the world, large quantities of it are mined in places like China, Brazil, Venezuela, Australia and South Africa, as well as across the U.S. and Canada. Some of these mines remove more than 100 million tons of iron ore (which includes hematite, magnetite and other products) every year.

This article was updated in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Now That's Interesting

Legend has it that hematite deposits were formed on battlegrounds where large amounts of blood were lost, giving rise to hematite's intense reddish hue and nickname of "bloodstone."

Original article: Hematite, a Shape-shifting Mineral From the Stone Age

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