Salmonella Wipes Out the Aztecs

Scientists have long pondered what disease could have been strong enough to cause the end of the Aztecs. A new study reveals that a lethal form of the bacteria salmonella could be the culprit of the Aztec’s demise.

For the past five centuries scientists have been trying to figure out what caused the great pestilence epidemic in 1545. Now, thanks to the findings in a study recently published in Nature Ecology and Evolution , they think they finally discovered the cause. A lethal form of salmonella, Salmonella enterica , may have wiped out the majority of the Aztecs before a second breakout of smallpox killed those who remained in 1576.

The study is based on the analysis of teeth that were extracted from 29 Aztecs found in a recently discovered cemetery in Oaxaca, Mexico. During the study, researchers performed an extensive search for known pathogens. Alexander Herbig, co-author of the study, says “we tested for all bacterial pathogens and DNA viruses for which genomic data is available.” Scientists found teeth that tested positive for salmonella in ten different bodies.

Researchers believe the “pestilence” was most likely enteric fever. The symptoms of a disease like this include: high fever, bleeding from the eyes, ears, mouth and nose, resulting in death within only a few days. Ashlid Vågene, co-author of the study, believes Salmonella enterica is no longer a threat to the local population.

Researchers think the Spanish brought the disease in their food and livestock. This theory is based on the fact that multiple people who died before the arrival of the Europeans showed no trace of salmonella. The scientists say they can't be sure that the data they collected is 100 percent accurate due to the small sample size. But, it should be “considered a strong candidate.” Scientists plan to continue their research by studying additional pestilence graves to determine if their conclusions are supported.

With this study, scientists have found the answer to a question that has long eluded them. But, until further research is done, scientists cannot know for sure whether it was salmonella or some other nasty disease that took out the Aztecs.

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