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The Strange Case of the Mysterious Carancas Meteorite Sickness

At around 11:45 AM On September 15, 2007, the residents of the village of Carancas in the remote highlands of Peru, near the Bolivian border and Lake Titicaca, had their normally quiet, uneventful day intruded upon by the sight of a fiery ball shooting across the sky trailing smoke, bright enough to be seen for miles around despite it being the middle of the day. It was quite the spectacle for the rural, superstitious locals, and it became even more intense when the object smacked down into the earth nearby, generating a mushroom shaped cloud and leaving behind a crater measuring 20 feet deep and 45 feet wide, from which spewed boiling water and noxious fumes, the whole of it surrounded by smoking black fragments. The impact from the object was so strong that the shockwave shattered windows up to one kilometer away, damaged buildings, knocked a man off of his bicycle, and its vibrations were picked up on seismographic and infrasound monitoring equipment as far away as Bolivia. It would have seemed almost like a catastrophic event for the scared locals, and they even thought it might be an attack. Yet it would get stranger still, as this particular meteorite would prove to have some strange properties, and it would go on to spark a mysterious illness that remains unsolved.

When officials and scientists arrived at the scene, they quickly ascertained that this was a large meteorite that had hit, estimated as being about 10 feet across, weighing12 tons, and hitting the earth at roughly 10,000 miles per hour. It was found to have been a chondrite meteorite, likely pulled from an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and although it was one of the largest meteorite impacts in modern history, considering its composition it was a puzzle as to why the thing had not burned up in the atmosphere. Indeed, for a chondrite meteorite such an impact and crater were deemed to be practically impossible, with Peter Schultz, a professor of geological sciences saying of it, “This meteor crashed into the Earth at three kilometers per second, exploded, and buried itself into the ground. Carancas simply should not have happened.” Indeed, the impact at Carancas is still classified as the only known such impact by a chondrite meteorite. It was also considered strange that the meteorite had hit so hot and with such fumes, rare for meteorite strikes, which actually hit quite cool and have no odor typically. But wait, it gets even weirder.

The impact site

In the days after the mysterious meteorite strike, many of the locals who had come to investigate right after it hit, numbering in the hundreds, began to come down with a mysterious illness. The unexplained sickness brought with it various symptoms including dermal injuries, rashes, nosebleeds, dizziness, nausea, headaches, diarrhea and vomiting, and soon the local hospital was packed with people suffering from the mysterious ailments, for which no cause could be discerned. So many people were being admitted, in fact, that auxiliary medical tents were set up to deal with the influx, and no one had any idea what was causing it. There were also reports that livestock were falling sick as well, with many of them bleeding from their noses and even dying. The government even considered declaring a state of emergency, but then a few days later everyone recovered as if nothing had happened.

Although the exact cause of the mysterious symptoms could not be determined even with blood tests, it was widely agreed that it had had something to do with the meteorite, as most people had begun to get sick just hours after approaching it. One theory was that the ground water had been contaminated somehow, but if that were the case, then why did the sickness only affect people and animals that had been near the meteorite impact? Another idea was that arsenic already present in the groundwater had been released as an aerosol by the steaming meteor, but the arsenic in the water was found to have been the same level as that of the drinking water in the rest of the areas where people did not get sick. It was also speculated that it had had something to do with the strong smell of sulfur reported near the crater, likely caused by the vaporization of a compound called troilite within the meteorite. Radiation was also considered, but soon ruled out when the readings from the crater were found to be no higher than normal. It could also have been a gas explosion or some unidentified hydrothermal activity, and Don Yeomans, head of the Near Earth Object Program at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, has said of the mystery illness:

Statistically, it’s far more likely to have come from below than from above. The noxious fumes that have supposedly sickened curious locals who went to examine the crater would seem to indicate hydrothermal activity, such as a local gas explosion, because meteorites don’t give off odors.

The Carancas crater

Still another idea was that it was all psychosomatic, caused merely by the superstitious beliefs of the populous, who believed that it had come from the gods, was cursed, or was some supernatural portent of doom. The mayor of the village even had a shaman come to the impact site in order to perform a ritual to appease fears, going as far as to sacrifice a baby llama in the process. Fragments of the meteorite have been kept and studied, but they are completely normal, and there is no indication for why this particular event should have created such a sickness. To this day the mystery of the Carancas meteorite has never really been completely solved, and we are left to wonder just what was going on here.