An estimated five thousand years ago an asteroid shattered on impact with the earth’s upper atmosphere, sending huge chips of matter plummeting earthwards, where they fell on a 15km band of the Chaco. This cataclysmic spectacle and the subsequent fires that would have been triggered must have terrified the locals. When the Spanish arrived in South America, the Komlek called the area Pigüen Nonraltá – or Field of the Heavens – Campo del Cielo in Spanish. They venerated the “stones from the sky”, whose surface, when polished, reflected the sun. Mysterious legends reached Spanish ears, arousing an insatiable curiosity for anything that smacked of precious metal, and even sparking illusions of the fabled City of the Caesars, a variant of the El Dorado myth. In 1576, Hernán Mexía de Miraval struggled out here hoping to find gold but, instead, he found iron. The biggest expedition of all came in 1783, when the Spanish geologist and scientist Miguel Rubín de Celis led an expedition of two hundred men to find out if the Mesón de Fierro – a 3.5m-long curiosity and the most famous of the meteors – was in fact just the tip of a vast mountain of pure iron. When they dug below, they found only dusty earth. The latitude was recorded, but since there was no way of determining its coordinate of longitude, the Mesón de Fierro was subsequently lost – it’s probable that the indigenous inhabitants reburied their “sunstone”.
The largest of the meteorites you can see today, “El Chaco”, has been reliably estimated to weigh 33,700kg, a strong contender for the second-biggest in the world (the biggest, almost twice the size, is in Namibia). El Chaco and the Campo del Cielo (wcampodelcielo.com.ar) both lie in the southwestern corner of Chaco Province, 15km south of the town of Gancedo, in the Reserva Natural Pigüen N’onaxá.