Scientists Discover What May Have Wiped Out The Aztecs

The discovery can help us understand the impact of colonisation

Detail of figures on the Temple of Quetzalcoatl at Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, Mexico, c. 1980. Image (Photo by Harvey Meston/Getty Images)

Apparently, it wasn’t a terrible curse that wiped out the Aztecs, Mexico’s most ancient population, but something far more mundane and still present in today’s society.

A new study has found the cause of this civilisation’s demise in the stomach contents of 16th-century corpses linked to the epidemic that killed 80% of Mexico’s indigenous peoples. 

For centuries the source of the outbreak was known as cocoliztili, the Aztec word for pestilence. Experts were confused as to what exactly this meant regarding disease types. Measles, smallpox and typhus were all excluded. It was even thought that a type of fever or plague was the culprit.

A teocalli or Mesoamerican temple pyramid in Mexico, with a priest offering human sacrifice on the top, circa 1500. An engraving by J. Chapman for the 'Encyclopaedia Londinensis', 1817. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

So scientists from Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, pulled teeth and took samples from mass graves of 400-year-old outbreak victims in the Mexican highlands. After analysing the DNA from these remains, they discovered a strain of Salmonella, called Paratyphi C, was present.

This is a breakthrough in the mystery of what killed the Aztecs and the researchers believe that it is likely the Europeans brought the bacteria with them, due to unsanitary conditions caused by considerable unrest.

Pretty grim.

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