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Were-llama
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.