Out of a clear grey sky

One day in 2007, a meteorite landed in a Peruvian hamlet. And it wasn’t just any meteorite. Hugh Thomson visits the locals and tracks the fall-out

Hugh Thomson | November/December 2012

On a winter's morning, the sun is rising over Lake Titicaca and steam is coming off the frosted water as it melts. The light at 13,000 feet is so thin that the Andean mountains around the lake have an eerie, insubstantial quality: cardboard cut-outs in a puppet play.

At Puno, the largest town in this region of south-eastern Peru, passengers are being piped aboard the Orient Express, with its leather armchairs and complimentary pisco sours, to take the high pass to Cusco and Machu Picchu. In lakeside boutique hotels like the $1,000-a-night Titilaka, foreigners and now a few well-heeled Peruvians are sipping muña tea as they contemplate a trip to the islands or a spa session. And I'm bombing along a rutted road into the badlands beside the border with Bolivia, to an isolated community which, until a few years ago, no one had ever heard of. 

My destination is Carancas, some 20 miles from the lake, a scattered hamlet of Aymara homesteaders tending their sheep and llamas on a wide-open plain of tufted ichu grass that looks like a worn carpet. It is too poor a community to have any cars. Even so Eduardo, my taxi driver, is not taking chances. Every bicyclist, chicken or señora in a stately bowler hat gets due warning with a double blast of his horn. 

The wide-open plain and the clarity of the light mean that the few inhabitants I can spot are picked out as if by Edward Hopper. A boy of about nine is wheeling an old bicycle wheel across the grass. Another is playing with a toy truck outside an adobe hut; being a truck driver is something to which many campesinos aspire. In the fields, the donkeys are staked and hobbled, a belt-and-braces approach to ensure that they, like the campesinos, are never likely to leave. 

A motorcycle comes into view down the pock-marked road. The driver and his two passengers are wrapped in overcoats, goggles, scarves and peaked caps, as if they've just arrived from the 1920s. We ask directions. The driver gives that indeterminate wave of the hand, so common in South America, halfway between a direction and a gesture of hope: "It's somewhere beyond the school and the bridge." We follow a grass lane that winds between the homesteads with their beehive barns and crumbling adobe walls, until even that track runs out.

There is no sign of what we have come to find. We look for someone to ask, but already most of them are far away, in the fields gathering hay or huddled in small groups having what may well be a second breakfast: in the highlands the native people, the Aymara and the Quechua, like a rolling breakfast of soups and stews.

I feel a sudden sense of futility and absurdity at what is a quixotic quest. An old woman is observing us as she leans over the wall of her cancha. From her stovepipe hat hang what look like corks, as black and frozen as the potatoes she has left out to preserve in a neat square in front of the hut. She says something in glottal Aymara. Eduardo, like most city boys, speaks little Quechua and less Aymara, so we try to converse in Spanish, but she is partially deaf.

A younger woman comes to our rescue. She introduces herself as Nora Maquera and tells us the older woman is her mother-in-law, Valentina, and is over 90, although her exact age is unknown. Together, they walk us slowly towards the end of their land. Masked by a rise in the plain, and by some scrappy canvas sacking I had taken to be agricultural but that turns out once to have been a marquee tent, is a large, perfectly round 50-foot crater, now filled with water of a startlingly deep blue.

The meteorite fell on Carancas on September 15th 2007, at 11:40:14 precisely. Unlike most, it did not break up in the atmosphere, but landed with an impact one scientist has equated to 3,000kg of explosives, enough to destroy a city block. It sent up a mushroom of smoke that could be seen five miles away, in Desaguadero, on the border with Bolivia. 

Seismologists in La Paz and southern Peru registered the impact. The story was reported by news services around the globe, although at first there was uncertainty as to what had caused the crater. Pravda even speculated that it might have been an American spy satellite that had fallen out of the sky. But then nothing. A two-day wonder that fluttered the attention of the world before its gaze turned elsewhere. 

Something about the story had stuck in my mind and brought me here: the idea of a meteorite landing in a village's backyard, like something out of Tintin; tales that reached me from Peruvian sources about the hardship and fights that the villagers had then endured; and a perennial fascination with the life of the Aymara and Quechua who eke out a living in the thin air of the Andean highlands. I first came to this area of Peru 30 years ago and have been back many times to try to trace the old pre-Columbian roads that lace the region, and see the monuments that survived the Spanish Conquest, like the nearby ruins of Sillustani. 

Now, as we stood by the crater, Valentina told me how she had been inside her house when she heard what sounded like an immense clash of thunder and a rushing noise she described as "aah-ugh-aah". She felt the shock of the impact, and thought it must have been a flash of lightning—although when she had just been outside, it was a perfectly clear morning. Like many of the inhabitants of Carancas that day, she fell to her knees and prayed to God.

The meteorite appeared as a fireball with a smoky tail, coming out of the clear sky above Lake Titicaca. It could easily have fallen in the lake itself. But with a last burst of energy, it carried across the water and this sphere of compacted iron and pyroxene and feldspar and kamacite buried itself in the plain of Carancas.

Valentina's son, José, I later discovered, had seen the meteorite fall. He had been standing in a field nearby, watching over their sheep. A man of few words, José's first thought as the fireball slammed into the ground was "this is how the world ends". 

As soon as the fireball landed, the skies turned dark with a toxic cloud that killed cattle, put many of the villagers in hospital, and left 600 people, including many of the emergency services, with nausea and headaches. One man told me that the cloud made the village smell "like hell must smell—of sulphur and rotten eggs". The sky rained down with stones hurled up by the meteorite's landing. The only glass windows in the hamlet, at the health centre, all shattered.

Eight policemen were sent from Desaguadero to find out what had happened and guard the meteorite, which had buried itself deep inside the ground. They too were hospitalised. The rumour among the villagers was that they had tried to steal some of the meteorite. Yet, as scientists soon established, it was not necessarily just the meteorite that was toxic. It had landed close to a small stream that meandered over the plain from the hills above. Since the meteorite had fallen at a point on the Earth's surface of an unusually high altitude—13,000ft—it had had less time to cool as it passed through the atmosphere.

In this case, the residual heat and impact of the meteorite combusted with the water, which the villagers had been drinking for years. Local health officials now realised the water contained traces of arsenic and that, over the long term, this had caused the liver problems and early mortality in Carancas which had always been put down to the hardship of the villagers' lives. The meteorite had sent up such a concentrated dose of this arsenic that it finally became apparent; some geologists think that this may have combined with the troilite already present in the meteorite to form a dangerous cocktail.

It took a while for this to emerge. More immediately clear was that, for the first time in its history, Carancas was in the news. Along with the police, many geologists, medics and Peruvian journalists converged on the village. The crater was sealed off.

It was when two engineers arrived to remove the meteorite that the villagers took action. They refused the engineers access. The government, pompously, quoted a mining law that declared that "everything above ground belongs to the owners of that land. Everything below it belongs to the state." Since the meteorite had penetrated to a depth of over 15ft, it could now be treated as a mineral deposit. But, as every villager made a point of telling me, no one in Carancas was going to accept that. Not least because by then a man had arrived whom the villagers called El Cazameteoritos, the "Hunter of Meteorites".

Michael Farmer, an American, was in Spain when the meteorite fell. Many of the press reports suggested at first that the "Carancas event" could not have been a meteorite, but a volcanic or geological phenomenon that had been misinterpreted by a simple rural community. Only a week or so later, when the dust had settled and geologists had established the truth, did Farmer lead his team of collectors to Peru. 

The world of the professional meteorite-hunter is a strange one. Almost all meteorites break up in the atmosphere; very few meteorite fragments are recovered. Establishing provenance and validity is difficult. The meteorite-hunter needs to be ready to travel to any corner of the world where one may land: and for many such journeys to be fruitless. Farmer's list of assignations reads like that of a foreign correspondent: Morocco 2002, Lesotho 2003, Moss, Norway 2006, Cali, Colombia 2007 (a place where one imagines even the seasoned meteorite-hunter might have to tread carefully), Ash Creek, Texas 2009. 

The financial rewards can be great. Meteorite fragments often sell at four to five times the value of gold, such is their scarcity. And what drives men like Farmer is what drives a lot of collectors: the desire to get there first. However many meteorite fragments he has sold, he has also built up a large personal collection since the days when, as a student at the University of Arizona, he first became fascinated by the strange, shiny "space rock" he saw at a country fair.

Quite what happened during Farmer's visit to Carancas is hard to unpick. His story is that he bought fragments of meteorite from anyone who would sell, including the police, then escaped across the border to Bolivia when those same police started to get difficult; the chief of police later issued a writ against him for spreading false claims. Farmer asserts that he advised the locals to protect the remaining body of the meteorite, and that he donated fragments he bought to interested scientists. "Both locals and scientists and the meteorite collection community worldwide benefited from my expedition...The only ones complaining are those who did not go. Had I not gone, most of the meteorite would have been lost, thrown away or sold to tourists as trinkets."

The meteorite fascinated scientists because, in the words of José Ishitsuka of Peru's Geophysics Institute, who visited the site several times, it should never have landed intact. The conventional modelling of how meteorites react as they enter the atmosphere is that, having entered at speeds of up to 160,000mph, they then decelerate and rapidly lose mass and heat because of ablation. In this process, the outer layer of the meteoroid is vaporised and stripped away by high-speed collision with air molecules. Thanks to atmospheric drag, most meteorites lose all of their cosmic velocity while still several miles up. At that point, under the influence of the Earth's gravity, the meteorite begins to accelerate again, and reaches its terminal velocity of 200 to 400mph. 

These variations in speed and atmospheric density exert great pressure on the body of a meteorite as it approaches, nearly always causing it to break up before it comes within ten miles of the surface. Somehow, the Carancas meteorite remained intact and at intense heat. It is thought to be the only such meteorite that had witnesses to describe its final fall and impact. 

It is difficult to pin down what has happened to the remains of the meteorite. Certainly Valentina's family living in their small, run-down cancha profited little from it. Nor has Carancas gained as a community. The scrappy buildings at the centre of the hamlet—the health centre, primary school, and a few benches set in concrete—are just as they were before the impact. Apart from the repair of the broken windows from the seismic shock, nothing has improved. 

At first the state government had grandiose plans for a museum, to lure tourists and pilgrims down a new road that would be asphalted so that they could view the shining meteorite at the bottom of the large crater. The authorities got as far as erecting a marquee. But time was against them. The meteorite landed in September. In November, the annual rains began and made short work of the marquee, which was shredded. The crater filled with water. Does any of the meteorite remain at the bottom?

Benito Mosaja Paza thinks so. He is one of the leaders of the local community. I track him down to his homestead, keeping a wary eye on the feral dogs that cross the plain in packs (the usual Andean rules apply—bend down as if to pick up a stone; the dog will understand). In his early 60s, Benito has something of the dry-mouthed self-containment of an American rancher. At first he is suspicious. 

"Todos vienen aquí para sacar algo, everyone comes here to take something, or find something: oil, gas, minerals. Now they came for the meteorite. And what are we left with? Nothing. There is no secondary school for many miles. Our water is still bad. And of course they never improved the road."

He tells me he is an evangelista, a Protestant in largely Catholic Peru; then he asks if I know why the meteorite fell here, before supplying his own answer.

"It was a sign from God. To the Catholics, who drink too much. To make them stop." I didn't like to ask why, in that case, it had landed on a Protestant, not a Catholic community. 

It was Benito and others who organised the vigilante force around the crater, after Farmer told them how much the meteorite was worth. Twenty men were detailed to guard it. If any man failed to keep a watch, they were fined a sheep. A Peruvian geologist told the press that the campesinos were preventing his team from studying the meteorite. "It's as if they're suffering from a type of collective psychosis," he said. 

The men of Carancas no longer guard the crater; there is nobody to guard it from. The world has lost interest. What annoys Benito is that their drinking water is still contaminated—if anything, the villagers claim it is worse. There has been gold mining in the area since the time of the Incas, but the rise in the value of gold has encouraged more illegal prospecting in the hills, with an accompanying chemical run-off. Benito led the local campaign against these cowboy miners. The problem was widespread and affected the whole area; there had been riots both in the countryside and in Puno. Eduardo and I had seen the remains of roadblocks as we drove along the main highway. 

Travellers look at Lake Titicaca as a mystical, beautiful place; the locals see it as a smuggling opportunity that allows Bolivian rice, sugar and petrol to cross the lake to Peru. The town of Desaguadero, just five miles away, has sprawled into aspirational building plots, but talking with the people of Carancas, it is clear the rural communities have not profited.

As I leave, I go back to say goodbye to Nora and Valentina. Nora has one of her six children with her, a bright ten-year-old called Pedro. Before I take a portrait of them, he runs to get a lamb.

Nora is bleak about the future for the community. Last year, unexpected hail killed many of the cattle. "To live in the countryside is still to suffer and to cry. I hope my children will go to the city." 

One of the scientists who came to the village told them that it was a large meteorite landing in Mexico which had killed the dinosaurs. And that their meteorite is important because it landed intact. But Valentina will have nothing of such scientific theories. She peers at me with absolute certainty in her rheumy eyes. 

"It was a signal of the Second Coming." And she points to the sky.

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