The Mystery of the Cocoliztli Plague Solved?

By: Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary

We know what it was from the Spanish chronicles of the time; in 1545 a devastating plague struck the Aztec people (or those who had survived the Spanish conquest) and in only five years had killed off 80 percent of the entire Aztec people. The symptoms were a high fever, headaches, and bleeding from the eyes, nose and mouth. Within three to four days those afflicted were dead. At first, historians thought it might be smallpox. However, the mysterious illness did not cause black spots and open sores characteristic of smallpox. Was it the measles or malaria? The answer seems to also be negative. So what could this plague have been? The Nahua people, the descendants of the Aztecs, called this the “cocoliztli,” which means “pestilence.” It certainly was a pestilence—it was one of the worst epidemics in human history. It almost came to equal the Black Death that killed 25 million people in Europe in the 13th Century A.D.

The Spanish priests of the time, who were helpless to stop the widespread death of the Aztec populace, had to bury the dead quickly in deep pits to make sure that the plague did not spread any further. From one of these pits a group of researchers from the University of Tuebingen in Germany have examined the DNA of the skeletal remains of the victims of the cocoliztli. What they discovered is that the one contagion, known as salmonella enterica bacterium, was common in all of the victims. The researchers theorize that the introduction of cattle and other beasts of burden brought from Europe may have started a major outbreak of salmonella in the Aztec population. Since the Aztecs had never encountered anything like this before (that, and the Europeans were already immune to this virus), they easily fell victim to this previously unknown contaminant. Could it have been prevented? The Spanish knew nothing about viruses, about disease prevention, and they certainly did not know how to stop a full-blown plague beyond trying to bury the dead as fast as possible or maybe douse them with quick lime. Even these measures did not work, and eventually the plague burned itself out, but not without devastating consequences. The only good news is that science has prevented for the most part similar plagues from breaking out that could wipe out whole populations in our world.

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