How do you take down an empire?
Well, introducing a life-threatening disease is one way.
Back in 1545 members of the Aztec nation began coming down with high fevers, headaches and bleeding from the eyes, mouth and nose. Within three or four days, death followed.
It’s estimated that 80% of the population was wiped as the epidemic, named by locals as “cocoliztli”, meaning pestilence, killed as many as 15 million people in five years, reports The Guardian.
The initial cause of the disease, however, has since been questioned. 500 years later and scientists think they might have the answer, although they are still unsure.
After sweeping aside smallpox, measles, mumps, and influenza as likely suspects, they identified a typhoid-like “enteric fever” for which they found DNA evidence on the teeth of long-dead victims:
“The 1545-50 cocoliztli was one of many epidemics to affect Mexico after the arrival of Europeans, but was specifically the second of three epidemics that were most devastating and led to the largest number of human losses,” said Åshild Vågene of the University of Tuebingen in Germany.
“The cause of this epidemic has been debated for over a century by historians and now we are able to provide direct evidence through the use of ancient DNA to contribute to a longstanding historical question.”
Considered one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, it came just “two decades after a smallpox epidemic killed an estimated 5-8 million people in the immediate wake of the Spanish arrival”:
The 1545 cocoliztli pestilence in what is today Mexico and part of Guatemala came just two decades after a smallpox epidemic killed an estimated 5-8 million people in the immediate wake of the Spanish arrival.
A second outbreak from 1576 to 1578 killed half the remaining population.
“In the cities and large towns, big ditches were dug, and from morning to sunset the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches,” is how Franciscan historian Fray Juan de Torquemada is cited as chronicling the period.
So what’s triggered it? Well:
Analysing DNA extracted from 29 skeletons buried in a cocoliztli cemetery, they found traces of the salmonella enterica bacterium, of the Paratyphi C variety.
It is known to cause enteric fever, of which typhoid is an example. The Mexican subtype rarely causes human infection today.
Many salmonella strains spread via infected food or water, and may have travelled to Mexico with domesticated animals brought by the Spanish, the research team said.
And that, my friend, is why you never eat chicken sashimi. Yes, that’s a real thing.
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