The Aztec civilisation was probably brought down by Salmonella

Mexico’s native Aztec population may have been wiped out by a deadly strain of Salmonella brought by sailors from Europe.

Native Mexicans were subject to two large outbreaks in the 16th century which killed between 7 and 18 million people in the country’s highlands.

Now two new studies have revealed evidence that the epidemic may well have been down to a rare form of Salmonella called Paratyphi C.

In one German study, scientists looked at the DNA from teeth at Mexican burial sites dug in the 1540s after an epidemic that killed 80% of Mexicans.

They used a modern database of 2,700 bacteria to match bacterial DNA found on the bodies, and identify it as Salmonella. Sequencing these samples showed they were Paratyphi C.

The other study led by a researcher at the University of Warwick found the same ancient strain in the remains of a young woman in Norway, around the year 1200, which could prove the disease had a European origin.

Explorer and soldier Hernando Cortes led Spanish forces to Mexico in 1519.

Epidemics and fighting between the Spanish and natives meant that a century after the conquistadors arrived the native population had dived from 25 million to just 1 million.

The Aztecs lived between the 14th and 16th centuries in Mexico and the surrounding areas linking North and South America. They are widely credited for introducing cocoa to the European settlers, and used the beans as a currency as well as grinding them down to make a bitter drink.

The lack of natural protection against foreign bacteria and poor sanitary conditions that transmit Paratyphi C could well mean this was the disease that brought down the civilisation that had successfully ruled Mexico for three centuries.

The two papers were published in Nature.

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