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Meteorites, 'plagues' and bad omens

The Peruvian Meteorite
Editorial Comment

By:Patrick Barkham

A sleepy fishing community in rural Australia is struck by a shower of meteorites. Those hit succumb to a terrible infection: they are turned into zombies and feast on human flesh.

The townsfolk of Carancas in Peru would be advised not to watch the horror film Undead, after witnessing a fiery ball in the sky at the weekend. More than 150 residents have suffered headaches, irritated skin and vomiting brought on by a "strange odour", according to a local health official.

Tales of "toxic" fumes rising from a crater sound scary but as Nester Quispe, the local mayor, said: "There's a certain psychological fear in the community." Experts believe the irritation could be caused by gas or dust and there is still uncertainty over whether it was a meteorite - the "crater" could be just a toxic lake.

What about zombie disease? And is it a Sign? For centuries, meteorites have been seen as gifts from angels or portents of doom. In the Bible, Joshua wrote of how "the Lord cast down great stones from heaven" while Revelation recorded a falling star that poisoned the waters: "Many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

Reports of sickness are rare, although many of the estimated 1,050 sightings of falling meteorites to date have sparked superstition. The Peru event has triggered internet speculation that it could be a fallen satellite (as in the Michael Crichton thriller The Andromeda Strain) or, of course, aliens. In 1492 a meteorite is said to have caused a war: Maximilian, Emperor of Austria, was convinced that a meteor fall in Ensisheim, Rhineland, was a favourable omen to confront the French.

More mysterious than the Peruvian "meteorite" is the 1908 Tunguska event, a blast over Siberia 1,000 times more powerful than an atomic bomb, probably caused by a meteoroid exploding above Earth. Millions of trees were felled, locals took to the streets in panic and there were reports of a "plague", now thought to be unconnected to the blast.

In Peru, the crater and its sickness will soon be verified by scientists. Just don't expect a denouement like the one in Undead.

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