OUT OF A CLEAR GREY SKY

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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...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, 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".

Photograph: The meteorite fell with such force that it buried itself more than 15ft into the altiplano, spewing out stones and rocks (Alamy)

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