Archivists Find the Oldest Record of Human Death by Meteorite

The 1888 historical account is likely the first ever confirmed case of a human being struck dead by an interstellar interloper

2002 meteorite
New research claims to have found the earliest evidence of a person being killed by meteorite. This photo depicts a meteorite entering Earth's atmosphere during the Leonid meteor shower in November 2002. Photo by George Varros and Dr. Peter Jenniskens/NASA/Getty Images

In recorded history, Anne Hodges is the only member of humankind so cosmically unlucky as to have been struck by a meteorite—that is, until now. Archivists in Turkey have discovered what they say may be the first credible historical account of a person being hit and killed by a meteorite on August 22, 1888 in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, reports Sid Perkins for Science.

The extraterrestrial impact blasted into a hillside and left one man dead and another paralyzed, according to the research, published this week in the journal Meteoritics & Planetary Science.

While claims of people being killed by meteorites date back to biblical times, none of them had enough accompanying documentation to satisfy historians, according to the researchers.

A recent example that didn’t end up passing muster came in 2016 when Indian newspapers reported a bus driver had been killed by an alleged meteorite that struck a college campus, reported Christine Hauser of the New York Times in 2016. No meteorite shower was observed or predicted at the time of the purported impact, and as experts from NASA pored over the photographic evidence they came to the conclusion that the incident was more consistent with a land-based explosion, reported the Times.

A list of meteorites, distinguished from meteors or shooting stars by virtue of having crashed all the way to Earth, is maintained by the International Comet Quarterly. The list includes some cases of indirect injuries to people as well as a slew of slain livestock and smashed buildings.

In the exceptional case of Anne Hodges, the Alabama woman was napping on her couch on November 30, 1954 when a roughly nine pound meteorite shot through the ceiling. The 4.5-billion-year-old rock ricocheted off her large home stereo and struck her in the leg, leaving a large, dark bruise on her left side. A broken off piece of the meteorite that hit Hodges is in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s collections.

These stories are noteworthy because the odds of being in precisely the wrong place at the wrong time are vanishingly slim. "You have a better chance of getting hit by a tornado and a bolt of lightning and a hurricane all at the same time," Michael Reynolds, a Florida State College astronomer told Justin Nobel of National Geographic in 2013.

This potential first ever record of death and maiming via space rock was detailed in three manuscripts written in Ottoman Turkish now located in Turkish archives. One of the three records written by local officials at the time of the event states that the deadly meteorite was among several that fell to Earth over the course of roughly ten minutes, reports Science. In addition to its human toll, the astral interloper damaged crops and fields in the area. An account of a blazing fireball that blew up high in the atmosphere from a nearby city suggests to the researchers that the meteorite approached Sulaymaniyah from the southeast. The event was sufficiently noteworthy that the governor of Sulaymaniyah reported it to Abdul Hamid II, the 34th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the researchers write.

One of the letters mentioned an accompanying sample of the meteorite, but archivists’ attempts to locate it have thus far been unsuccessful. Still, the team writes that the finding hints at the possibility of additional historical records of death and injury by meteorite.

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