by Guillermo Faivovich and Nicolás Goldberg

“…Then the land was consumed by fire and flames surrounded the trees, plants, animals and men. Only a few of the Mocoví people saw the fires coming and dove into rivers and lagoons, where they were turned into capybaras and crocodiles. Two of them, a man and his wife, sought refuge in a tall tree, where they looked on as the rivers of fire flooded the surface of the earth; but unexpectedly, the fire blew upwards and burned their faces and turned them into monkeys…”

From the Jesuit missionary Guevara, on the Mocoví myth on how the Sun fell from the sky (1764).

Four thousand years ago, a meteorite shower took place in a region of Argentina located between the provinces of Chaco and Santiago del Estero. The spot where the shower took place is known as Campo del Cielo, and the remnants that fell are proof of the origins of our solar system. The pure iron asteroid weighed an estimated 800 tons and hailed from the Main Asteroid Belt located between Mars and Jupiter. It split into multiple meteorites that branched out over an area of approximately 320 square kilometers.

The original inhabitants of this area named the region Pinguem Nonraltá, Campo del Cielo ( Field of Heaven ) in the Guaycurú language. The name reflects the celestial origin of these strange entities as well as the experience of the locals, who probably witnessed the shower of these incandescent rocks.

In 1576, an expedition led by the conquistador Hernan Mexia de Miraval with the help of indigenous guides made the first written account of the iron mass, which weighed between 15 and 20 tons. It would later become known as Otumpa or Mesón de Fierro. Over the next 200 years, several expeditions sought to confirm whether the mass was made of silver or whether it was an upwelling of a subterranean iron mine. In an attempt to discover whether one of these theories was correct, a 1783 expedition led by frigate lieutenant Miguel Rubin de Celis did a series of excavations and explosions that undermined the base of the meteorite. The resulting pieces were dumped in a well and the expedition abandoned the site without registering the correct coordinates. The location of the so-called Meson de Fierro thus remains unknown.

Since then, several expeditions have tried to relocate the iron mass, but all have been in vain. In 1803, however, the Runa Pucito was discovered. This meteorite fragment, weighing nearly 800 kilograms, remained stranded at the Fort of Buenos Aires after being sent from Santiago del Estero in order to be delivered to the King of Spain. After The May Revolution of 1810, the meteorite might have been utilized to manufacture pistols. In 1825, the remaining bulk of 634 kg. was transferred to London following England’s recognition of Argentina’s independence, becoming the first specimen of Campo del Cielo to be exhibited publicly.

In the 19th century, scientists first began to suspect that the meteorites from Campo del Cielo in fact hailed from the heavens. In the first decades of the 20th century, several of the pieces that are now known to be part of the meteorite were found, including El Toba, weighing 4,210 kilograms.

Later, in the 1960s, the prestigious North American scientist Dr. William Cassidy directed a research group in conjunction with Argentine geologist Dr. Luisa Villar. Together they scanned the area carefully, discovering new craters and meteorites.

In 1969, Cassidy discovered the meteorite El Chaco, which weighed 37 tons and is considered the second largest meteorite in the world. In 1980, El Chaco was dug up by the Argentine Air force and deposited next to its crater, though it was then abandoned. In 1990, a famous meteorite hunter from Arizona named Robert Haag tried to rob the meteorite with some local logistical assistance. The maneuver failed and the meteorite was returned to its site. Paradoxically, this event sparked a movement to protect and acknowledge Campo del Cielo as a heritage of humanity. Thanks to this movement, a series of provincial laws were passed in 1994 to keep specimens in their original location. That same year, the provincial park where this great meteorite is currently on display was also founded.

In 2005, Dr. Cassidy returned to Campo del Cielo to continue his research in a series of campaigns subsidized by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with the collaboration of a team of experts at ACHA (The Chaco Association of Astronomy) and the support of the municipal government of Gancedo, which resulted in the unearthing of large meteorites like La Sorpresa, weighing 14,850 kilograms and El Wichí or Meteorito Santiagueño, weighing 7,850 kilograms.

Over the past few decades, purchasing and collecting meteorites has become quite popular, and international sales of meteorite pieces have risen. In April 2006, a 161 kilogram meteorite from the region was exported illegally from Argentina and sold for a record-breaking price at an auction organized by the firm Bonhams at its New Year headquarters.

In 2007, Argentina´s Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Campo del Cielo´s meteorites, thus being the first sovereign recognition of these specimens, long forgotten by the Argentine State. Also, the Senate proclaimed the these meteorites as cultural heritage and it will elaborate a national plan in order prevent and fight against illegal trafficking of meteorites, given the fact that there is no national law that protects them.

Fortunately, a dozen of the large meteorites from Campo del Cielo are on display at various Argentine institutions.