History tells us that in 1519 Hernando Cortes reached the shores of Mexico where he encountered the Aztecs. It has been estimated that around 25 million Aztecs existed at that time. But the arrival of the conquistadors changed everything. History also indicates that two epidemics, one in the 1540s and the other in the 1570s, crippled, essentially destroyed, the Aztec Empire. It is estimated that 10 to 20,000,000 Aztecs succumbed to some form of infectious process.
The Aztecs called these epidemics cocoliztli, their word for pestilence. Historians have long argued about what caused this horrific outbreak. At various times, researchers have suggested that the culprit was measles, mumps, smallpox, and several other disorders.
It’s important to note that epidemics of this size occur when an organism is introduced into a population that has no immunity to it. The Aztecs had never confronted such infectious agents and therefore had no individual or community resistance. The same thing happened in Europe when the Plague made its appearance. The most famous of these epidemics we call The Black Death. It killed millions and changed history. Same was true for the Aztecs.
But what exactly happened?
A new study suggests that the pathogen responsible just might be Salmonella, specifically S. Paratyphi C. DNA analysis indicates that this organism can be traced back to Europe and might indeed have traveled in the bodies of the conquistadors and infected the unprotected Aztec population. More research is needed but this is an intriguing development.
You’ve heard of salmonella I’m sure. It’s occasionally picked up in contaminated food and water by travelers to foreign countries and on some occasions. it can become a devastating illness and can even be deadly. A famous US epidemic occurred in the early 1900s when Mary Mallon, a healthy carrier of the organism and a cook, spread typhoid to numerous people. She became known as Typhoid Mary and her story is very interesting. Typhoid is caused by the organism Salmonella typhi, which places it in the same family as the organism that might have taken down the Aztec Empire.