Making sense of meteorites

A were-llama?

There’s been a couple of inter­est­ing posts on the Peru Illness Flap recently. If you haven’t been read­ing about this, some­where in the Andes near Lake Titicaca vil­la­gers saw a flash of light and heard a bang. They went to invest­ig­ate and found a crater. They say there was a strange smell and that people are get­ting ill.

I’d been plan­ning to blog about this when there was more inform­a­tion, so I was pleased to read Hysterical about hys­teria on the SciAm blog. A lot of sites have been rub­bish­ing the idea that this was an extra-terrestrial ill­ness, which is fine, but George Musser at SciAm gets it exactly right when he argues that if you want to talk about the incident’s effect on the local people simple Geology isn’t enough. Geology is great when it comes to rocks, but it’s a remark­ably poor method to invest­ig­ate people.

The Geological explan­a­tion of what phys­ic­ally happened is dif­fi­cult because of the lack of trained observ­ers at the site, a point brought out by Chris Rowan in his post on the sub­ject at Highly Allochthonous. What appears to have happened is that a met­eor­ite prob­ably struck the ground and caused a chem­ical reac­tion in the soil releas­ing sul­phur and arsenic from a freshly formed crater. This could have made those who invest­ig­ated the impact ill. However because the tox­ins are not bio­lo­gical it can­not be an infection.

The reason I can be sat­is­fied with this explan­a­tion is that it seems to cor­rel­ate with the opin­ions of other geo­lo­gists and also with what other reli­able news sites I’ve been able to access else­where on the inter­net. What this doesn’t mean how­ever is that the com­plaints of ill­ness are hys­teria. This impact didn’t hap­pen in a well-connected city, it happened in the Puna, the high­lands of the Andes. How would you make sense of the impact if you lived there? The people in the high­lands view their land very dif­fer­ently to west­ern­ers. An example would be seen in the rich super­nat­ural fauna you find in the Andes.

I was intro­duced to some of this by Kevin Lane, who was explain­ing some of the per­ils of work­ing in the high­lands. His favour­ite is the were-llama. The were-llama also gets a ref­er­ence in William Isbell’s Mummies and Mortuary Monuments where Isbell tells of how vil­la­gers would quake at the sound of strange hooves in the night. The real prob­lem for me though was the Pishtaku. You really don’t want to be mis­taken for the Pishtaku.

Woman in the Andes
Definitely not the Pishtaku. Photo (cc) Quinet.

The Pishtaku is a man with pale skin who stalks the Andes. You can recog­nise him because he is dressed in black. I wear a lot of black because I’m colour-blind and it makes life easier. It wasn’t an insur­mount­able prob­lem though. I have some white clothes. White is a bad idea too though Kevin said. White was also a Pishtaku col­our. I had some muddy green/brown clothes, but this too could pos­sibly be a Pishtaku col­our (If you’re won­der­ing what col­ours you can wear, some of the most col­our­ful clothes I’ve seen were in Peru.).

The Pishtaku is feared because of what he does. If he sees you then he cap­tures you and steals your body fat. If you see him, but he doesn’t see you, you’ll prob­ably waste away any­way. He sells the fat to the Swiss, who use it to make the best watches in the world, which as every­one in the Andes knows, are greased with human fat. In the 1960s the Pishtaku sold human fat to the Americans because an unspe­cified but spe­cific part of atomic bombs required human fat to work. I’m temp­ted to say that if LOLcats ever make it big in the high­lands the Pishtaku will sell human fat to people adding the cap­tions to the pho­tos. However, in the Andes the per­cep­tion is that the Pishtaku is a lethal creature. If you’re sus­pec­ted of being the Pishtaku you’ll be run out of town by an angry mob — if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky you won’t leave town.

It sounds irra­tional but it might not be entirely so. Back at the time of Spanish con­quest and after the Spanish were eager to find labout for their sil­ver mines. People taken into the mines would waste away — los­ing their body fat. One explan­a­tion for the Pishtaku is that he’s a folk memory of a Spanish priest come for slaves. There are vari­ants where he speaks no Quechua and has an assist­ant who trans­lates for him.

The Pishtaku might not be an accur­ate rep­res­ent­a­tion of real­ity, but in a region where com­mu­nic­a­tions are poor, he does the job of rep­res­ent­ing a danger. It’s a ser­i­ous enough threat that the task of exper­i­ment­ing to see if it is accur­ate is likely to be fatal, so it doesn’t have to be cor­rect, just safe concept to use.

Flipping back to the met­eor­ite, people visit the site and they get ill. Now there’s always a back­ground noise of people becom­ing sick, but if you have more people becom­ing ill it is safe to say Domingo is merely suf­fer­ing from ‘flu which he would have got any­way? How do you go about test­ing this? The go-to answer, exper­i­ment, isn’t an option here, because when a poten­tial killer is in town you don’t want to play with lives to see how dan­ger­ous it is.

This is where both the people who dis­miss the ill­nesses as purely psy­cho­lo­gical and those who assume that the loc­als are accur­ate object­ive observ­ers do the nat­ives a dis­ser­vice. Perhaps people in the indus­tri­al­ised world are so accli­mat­ised to the use of sci­ence, they for­get it is an extremely odd way of look­ing at the world. The people of Carancas are not stu­pid or fool­ish. They simply do not have the com­mu­nic­a­tion links send vast quant­it­ies of data to experts for rapid ana­lysis nor do they have the train­ing to do the work them­selves. Despite this, they’re using the tools they do have avail­able to tackle what may have been a poten­tially lethal problem.

Fortunately it appears that the crater is not the threat it may have seemed, but it does show the import­ance of basic sci­entific lit­er­acy. Just as these people iden­ti­fied a major threat where there wasn’t one, it would be equally easy to over­look a threat which was very real if you lack the edu­ca­tion to recog­nise the problem.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

3 Responses

  1. TW says:

    You have been tagged with the Evolution Meme. Hope you enjoy participating. :=)

  2. Brett says:

    Good stuff!

    The SciAm art­icle has a link to an update at New Scientist, where it says:

    The Peruvians also repor­ted that early claims of 200 people sickened by the impact were exag­ger­ated. They found only about 30 com­plaints of ail­ments such as head­aches and nausea, but could not identify a cause. Jackson sus­pects the vic­tims were simply stunned by “a big explo­sion in a very quiet area of the world”.

    This really does sound like a hys­ter­ical reac­tion again. But I don’t think this need con­tra­dict your lar­ger points. To sug­gest that there’s a psy­cho­genic ori­gin for these symp­toms is not to dis­miss the loc­als as fool­ish or stu­pid — as you say, they have lim­ited inform­a­tion and so it would be reas­on­able to worry about how an extremely unusual event like this might affect your health, and rein­ter­pret minor ail­ments or even worry your­self into feel­ing sick.

  1. January 22, 2008

    […] bene­fit of 2000 years of research. What Texan journ­al­ists have which the Romans didn’t have (nor the Peruvians in the puna) is access to sci­ent­ists who have spent years study­ing phe­nom­ena. You’d think that the local […]