Meteorites are highly valued and sought after, and not surprisingly they are often the cause of sometimes heated disputes. But it is rare, if not unique, that a meteorite is associated with murder. Such is the case with the famous Vaca Muerta meteorite, which was one of the two archetypes for the class of mesosiderites.
Vaca Muerta fell in the Chilean Atacama Desert possibly thousands of years ago, creating a major strewn field. Not only has the extreme dryness of the desert helped to preserve the many specimens, but the isolation and forbidding environment caused minimal interference by humans. Nonetheless, the local Indians, the Changos, at some point discovered the strewn field, mistaking the meteorites for silver ore. Following tradition, they kept their knowledge of mineral ores secret within their community.
Sometime in the 1830s, one Chango, Rafael Aracena, worked as a muleteer for a copper mine where, following a dispute, he killed a superintendent, and subsequently fled. Almost 10 years later, however, he was caught and brought to the Chilean coastal town of Copiapo, where he confessed and was condemned to death. In an attempt to curry favor with his designated, and apparently indifferent, defense lawyer, he revealed to him the existence of a rich inland silver mine, and gave detailed instructions on how to reach it. This did not change the outcome of the case and, despite an appeal to the Chilean Supreme Court, in 1842, Rafael Aracena was shot to death on the central plaza of Copiapo. Shortly thereafter, the lawyer financed an expedition to search for the fabled silver riches. This and other searches were in vain, in the sense that no silver was found, but possibly as much as 3 tons of meteorites were brought to the coast, where they disappeared upon realization that they were not silver.
By the 1860s, various specimens had reached scientists, and these early scientific explorations led to the recognition of the class of mesosiderites. But the case of the Chango and his rich silver mine cum meteorite strewn field faded into the lore of the Atacama Desert, and remained part of the oral tradition of the region. Details and location of the site were forgotten, until the site was rediscovered in the 1980s.
Holger Pedersen has spent 25 years studying Vaca Muerta. In the 1980s and 1990s, he led many expeditions to the strewn field for the first detailed mapping and modern exploration of the site (Pedersen et al. 1992), which has accounted for almost 4 tons of the mesosiderite. Inspired by the discovery of many remnants of early tools and leftovers from the mining attempts in the 19th century, Pedersen has in a parallel investigation been patiently and painstakingly searching the Chilean national archives, and through a study of original documents, he has uncovered all available information on the history of the site, from the trial of Rafael Aracena and the exploitation of the mistaken silver mine, through the early scientific studies to the modern investigations.
The results of these investigations are described in this new book “Road-map to the Indian's treasure,” which gives a riveting account of the trial of Rafael Aracena, set against the rough frontier life in the Atacama Desert, and the subsequent scientific studies of the meteorites. The book is richly illustrated with color photographs of the numerous individual fall sites in their beautiful desert surroundings, as well as engravings and early photographs of life in the small desert communities. Half of the book is taken up by detailed notes and transcriptions (in Spanish) of many of the key documents pertaining to the history of the site. An unusual and valuable addition are red-cyan anaglyphs that allow a three-dimensional view of many of the fall sites.
Given the importance of the Vaca Muerta strewn field, it is of great value to have this detailed scientific and cultural account of the site, written by a scientist, and the book stands as a model that one could hope may be emulated for other important meteorite falls.