‘Black Death’: Salmonella Wiped Out Aztecs 500 Years Ago, Scientists Say

Once-great Mayan cities still lie hidden under dense rainforest. To the average American, how this happened is a mystery. Some people say the Aztec nation “disappeared” and blame it even on alien invaders. However, the Maya aren’t gone at all. Millions of them still live in Guatemala and Honduras, and thousands more come to the United States to eke out livings as migrant laborers. It didn’t take a supernatural force to put their civilization into decline, either.

All we know that in the 100 years following the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the native population fell from approximately 25 million to 1 million. The vast majority died in a single outbreak in the 1540s and now, new research may finally have identified why.

In 1545, disaster struck Mexico’s Aztec nation when people started coming down with high fevers and headaches, bleeding from the eyes, mouth and nose. Death generally followed in three or four days.

‘Black Death’: Salmonella May Have Wiped Out Aztecs 500 Years AgoBy extracting and sequencing the DNA from the teeth of 29 people buried at a grave site in Oaxaca, Mexico, a team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History were able to reconstruct the genome of the Salmonella enterica strain known as Paratyphi C. Photo©Reuters

Within five years, as many as 15 million people — an estimated 80 percent of the population — were wiped out in an epidemic the locals named “cocoliztli.”

The word means “pestilence” in the Aztec Nahuatl language. Its cause, however, has been in question for nearly 500 years.

On Monday, scientists swept aside smallpox, measles, mumps, and influenza as likely suspects, fingering a typhoid-like “enteric fever” for which they found DNA evidence on the teeth of long-dead victims.

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