One of history’s worst epidemics may have been caused by a common microbe

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The symptoms were unlike anything the doctors of the time had seen. Victims turned yellow from jaundice, and blood ran from their ears and noses. They had hallucinations and agonizing convulsions. They died in days. Aztecs called it the cocoliztli, meaning pestilence in the local Nahuatl language. “The cocoliztli appeared from almost nowhere. Nobody knew what it was,” says Rodolfo Acuña-Soto, a historical epidemiologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. Even today, nobody knows what exactly was responsible for the epidemic, which first appeared in Mexico, then called New Spain, in the 16th century and killed an estimated 45% of the entire native population. Historical records suggest it was some type of hemorrhagic fever—like Ebola—but DNA evidence published this week suggests the culprit might have been salmonella—a common food-borne illness—brought by European colonizers. The evidence was tucked in the teeth of 29 skeletons unearthed from the ruins of an ancient city archaeologists call Teposcolula Yucundaa in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. The main inhabitants were Mixtec people, a distinct group from the Aztecs of central Mexico. Twenty-four skeletons came from a cemetery dating to the first cocoliztli outbreak in 1545, and five came from a cemetery roughly 100 years older. Pathogens that ravaged the body at its death can be entombed within the tooth’s inner chamber and detected years later, says Kirsten Bos, a molecular paleobiologist at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, and an author on the study.

Read More: ScienceMag


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