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Earth Medicine Science

Salmonella Probably Killed the Aztecs (theguardian.com) 131

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: In 1545 disaster struck Mexico's Aztec nation when people started coming down with high fevers, headaches and bleeding from the eyes, mouth and nose. Death generally followed in three or four days. Within five years as many as 15 million people -- an estimated 80% of the population -- were wiped out in an epidemic the locals named "cocoliztli." The word means pestilence in the Aztec Nahuatl language. Its cause, however, has been questioned for nearly 500 years. On Monday scientists swept aside smallpox, measles, mumps, and influenza as likely suspects, identifying a typhoid-like "enteric fever" for which they found DNA evidence on the teeth of long-dead victims.

Scientists now say they have probably unmasked the culprit. Analysing DNA extracted from 29 skeletons buried in a cocoliztli cemetery, they found traces of the salmonella enterica bacterium, of the Paratyphi C variety. It is known to cause enteric fever, of which typhoid is an example. The Mexican subtype rarely causes human infection today. Many salmonella strains spread via infected food or water, and may have travelled to Mexico with domesticated animals brought by the Spanish, the research team said.
The study has been published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.
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Salmonella Probably Killed the Aztecs

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  • If only they'd lived in dense cesspools of cities and dealt with zoonosis for a few hundred years, maybe they'd have had better immune systems.

    Or at least killed as high a percentage of Europeans as they lost of their own.

    I really do wonder, though... would the Old World folks have acted any differently if they'd understood that going to the New World would pretty much obliterate the locals through disease?

    • Don't worry. The new world had it's revenge by sending syphilis to the the old world. Trade went both ways.

      • Don't worry. The new world had it's revenge by sending syphilis to the the old world. Trade went both ways.

        Hardly a fair trade. Many diseases that cause death and are hard to avoid wiping out the majority of the population. Vs a disease that you only catch from prostitutes and can be prevented by wearing a lambskin on your willy (or not sleeping with loose women).

        • by arth1 ( 260657 )

          Vs a disease that you only catch from prostitutes

          This is certainly not the case. Syphilis can also spread with kissing, or from mother to child. Or by having sex with someone not a prostitute that has been infected, including your spouse.

        • >or not sleeping with loose women

          I know that was the attitude at the time (and until fairly recently)... but... it takes two to tango. How 'loose' could those women be without a bunch of men seeking sex with them?

          "Promiscuity increases the probability of spreading sexually transmitted diseases". No moral judgement, no strongly implied misogyny, just statistical fact that applies equally to both people involved in the individual act.

          • >or not sleeping with loose women

            I know that was the attitude at the time (and until fairly recently)... but... it takes two to tango. How 'loose' could those women be without a bunch of men seeking sex with them?

            "Promiscuity increases the probability of spreading sexually transmitted diseases". No moral judgement, no strongly implied misogyny, just statistical fact that applies equally to both people involved in the individual act.

            Speaking as a man, and assuming the majority on Slashdot are men (most likely heterosexual); saying don't sleep with loose women applies for most people. Sure, if you're a woman don't sleep with loose men. If you're not hetero, don't sleep with whoever you sleep with that is loose. :)

            I think you millennial folk are just a tad sensitive. Don't assume everything is "anti" whatever the campaign of the day is.

            The first Spanish making contact with the Aztecs, coming over with Cortez would have been primarily

    • Re:It's their fault! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @08:52AM (#55945241)

      I really do wonder, though... would the Old World folks have acted any differently if they'd understood that going to the New World would pretty much obliterate the locals through disease?

      My feeling is that it would be unlikely to change their policy, at least by those in power.

      Many people tended to view subjugation or even extermination of "lesser" peoples as their divine right. That attitude is pervasive even in relatively modern times, as with WW2-era Nazis or Japanese and their attitudes about races they viewed as inferior to their own. And I shouldn't give the Allied powers a pass either, such as with the British subjugation of India and the middle east, or the French and Dutch colonies in the Far East. And I believe there is historical evidence the US army deliberately used germ warfare against Native Americans in one case. Sadly, empathy for tribes outside of one's own has not historically been one of humanity's bright points.

      In fairness, contact between long separated peoples was basically inevitable once global exploration and trade became a thing. There's really no way to effectively quarantine a large population like that, at least in the long term. A single shipwrecked sailor is probably all it takes to trigger an epidemic.

      • Thanks for the information, DNS-and-BIND. Correction: US attacking Native Indians was apparently a complete hoax, deliberately fabricated by Ward Churchill. Why did I not know this?

        https://quod.lib.umich.edu/p/p... [umich.edu]

        Just goes to show that a compelling story spread much faster and farther than a subsequent retraction or correction.

        • in 1763. (Not the US Government...but...)
      • That attitude is pervasive even in relatively modern times, as with WW2-era Nazis or Japanese and their attitudes about races they viewed as inferior to their own.

        Hitler literally quoted american manifest destiny as inspiration.

      • by e r ( 2847683 )

        My feeling is that it would be unlikely to change their policy, at least by those in power.

        I agree, I think you're right here.

        Many people tended to view subjugation or even extermination of "lesser" peoples as their divine right. That attitude is pervasive even in relatively modern times, as with WW2-era Nazis or Japanese and their attitudes about races they viewed as inferior to their own. And I shouldn't give the Allied powers a pass either, such as with the British subjugation of India and the middle east, or the French and Dutch colonies in the Far East.

        Don't let the Arabs off the hook either [wikipedia.org]
        Nor the Aztecs themselves [wikipedia.org]
        Nor the Native Americans [wikipedia.org]
        ... NOR ANY RACE OR TRIBE OR COUNTRY [wikipedia.org].
        Slavery, mass murder, rape, war, and just plain assholery is an area where literally all have sinned.

        And I believe there is historical evidence the US army deliberately used germ warfare against Native Americans in one case.

        If you're talking about the army blankets then you heard wrong. It's bullshit made up by Ward Churchill [umich.edu].

        Sadly, empathy for tribes outside of one's own has not historically been one of humanity's bright points.

        True. And that's why Jesus and Christianity have lasted for thousands of years. The irony is that those who try to teach such things are ha

        • If you're talking about the army blankets then you heard wrong. It's bullshit made up by Ward Churchill.

          If you talking about Ward Churchill. Then yes - its bs.

          If you're trying to say no blankets were distributed....
          http://www.straightdope.com/co... [straightdope.com]
          https://www.umass.edu/legal/de... [umass.edu]

        • Sadly, empathy for tribes outside of one's own has not historically been one of humanity's bright points.

          True. And that's why Jesus and Christianity have lasted for thousands of years. The irony is that those who try to teach such things are hated the most, especially by those who (again, ironically) think they are so smart.

          I know of nobody who hates empathetic Christians that are living out their faith by helping the poor and needy - but I know lots of people that can't stand judgmental, anti-intellectual evangelicals. Most of the faith has been co-opted by conservative political interests at this point. A majority of U.S. Christians voted for Trump, who ran on a campaign of fearing "tribes outside of one's own". Those people don't deserve to call themselves Christians.

          • by e r ( 2847683 )

            fearing "tribes outside of one's own"

            I think this isn't a complete understanding of the trumpists position. I believe their position is more along these lines:

            1. Liking the culture of their own country more than the culture of some other countries. Yes, American democracy is better than literal cannibalism. Yes, American democracy is better than Sharia Law. Yes, American democracy is better than the lawlessness and corruption of South America.
            If my house is a mess who can I blame but myself? If our country is a mess who can we blame but our

            • 1. Some cultures are better than others. Keeping the cultural peas separated from the carrots is kind of the point of having this thing called a "country" and "borders".

              Careful, your white supremacy is showing. Are you intentionally trying to promote a return to segregation, or is that just a coincidence?

              Illegal immigrants are [criminals/freeloaders/here against the law]. That's not fair.

              I find this whiny, and it really just supports my contention - Trump's whole focus is on people "outside of one's own tribe", and how they are the problem. My central point isn't to question why Trump supporters voted for him. It's to say that they are Christians in name only.

              Jesus was an ethnic minority and a refugee, born to parents fleeing regional genocide (Herod killi

              • by e r ( 2847683 )

                1. Some cultures are better than others. Keeping the cultural peas separated from the carrots is kind of the point of having this thing called a "country" and "borders".

                Careful, your white supremacy is showing. Are you intentionally trying to promote a return to segregation, or is that just a coincidence?

                The US is home to many racial groups, not just white Americans. Don't put words in my mouth you lying little rat.
                I'm done with you. Liar. Slanderer.

                • I didn't put those words in your mouth, I'm just telling you how they come across outside of your own head.

                  Tell me, please, which groups are the "cultural peas" and which groups are the "cultural carrots"? Did it not occur to you how much your language mirrors principles like "separate but equal"?

                  You can be offended and call me names all you want, but that doesn't make you look any less wrong.

                  And I'd still love to hear you address my original point, which is that Trumpism is incompatible with the teachings

        • True. And that's why Jesus and Christianity have lasted for thousands of years. The irony is that those who try to teach such things are hated the most, especially by those who (again, ironically) think they are so smart.

          Most of the European and US conquerors that have been mentioned were Christian. (France isn't officially, but in practice is. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were not. The conquistadors were Catholic. While there have been Christians with empathy for outsiders (also true of other re

    • Many of the Aztec (and Maya) did live "in dense cesspools of cities".

      I really do wonder, though... would the Old World folks have acted any differently if they'd understood that going to the New World would pretty much obliterate the locals through disease?

      I am quite certain that they would have been delighted. Killing millions of the locals without even having to go to the trouble of shooting or stabbing them? So much cheaper, too.

      You should read the original sources, or even history books, about this period. It is hard to believe that human beings could be so cruel.

      Incidentally, it is told that while Cortes and his Spanish troops were living in luxury in the royal palace at Tenochtitlan, t

    • Like today, any moral policy idea can be explained away. However, even for the people at the time, They would be much happier to convert people to Christianity, then killing them off.
      We all like a good dose of confirmation bias. While a few of us actually like seeing mass murder.

      In modern times, we more or less would condemn violence against and atheist group, also condemn violence against a church. Even if you are against the ideas of such a group. However you love to hear stories if you are an Atheis

      • However you love to hear stories if you are an Atheist, about the Minister who realized the absurdity in religion and became an atheist.
        Except for the new pseudo religious "atheist movements" in the US, atheists don't care about other peoples religions, or changes thereof.
        Hint: "Atheism" is not a religion.

    • According to this summary of the article [qz.com], it was a local disease that was responsible for the "cocoliztli", not one brought over by Europeans.

  • Smallpox blankets (Score:5, Informative)

    by DNS-and-BIND ( 461968 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @08:51AM (#55945239) Homepage

    Everyone knows the story - the US government deliberately caused smallpox epidemics by distributing contaminated blankets. There's one problem: it isn't true. It was neither an act of terrorism nor an attempted genocide because it didn't happen. The entire story is a fraud, perpetrated by a former "ethnic studies" professor named Ward Churchill.

    The High Plains Smallpox Epidemic of 1837 was caused by personal contact with infected passengers from the riverboat St. Peter's, owned by a fur trading company. The epidemic on the High Plains centered around Fort Clark which, despite the name, was not a military installation. It was a privately owned fur trading post. The boss of Fort Clark was Francis Chardon, a fur trader. His personal diary survived to this day, one of numerous eyewitness accounts preserved from the time.

    Not only were infected blankets not distributed, but correspondence from Joshua Pilcher, the Indian Bureau's sub-agent to the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Ponca at Fort Kiowa, just south of Fort Clark, to Mr. Chardon describes one particular problem interfering with attempts to contain the epidemic that is curiously relevant to today. A smallpox vaccine existed in 1837, but Mr. Pilcher noted "it is a verry delicate experiment among those wild Indians, because death from any other cause, while under the influence of Vaccination would be attributed to that + no other cause[.]"

    In 2006, Ward Churchill was found guilty of seven counts of research misconduct [wikipedia.org] by the University of Colorado Ethics Committee. He was fired in 2007. He promptly filed suit, and won a jury trial for wrongful dismissal. The jury followed the instructions to the letter in coming to their conclusion, but recognized Churchill for the lying shitheel he was and awarded him precisely $1.00. (One juror denied any such motivation in a public interview.) A judge vacated the jury verdict on the grounds that the (state) university enjoys quasi-judicial immunity. The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld that decision. The Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal and in 2013 agreed with both the first judge and the Court of Appeals that the university was immune to suit in these circumstances. The US Supreme Court declined to get involved.

    It took 19 years from when Churchill first published his fraudulent bullshit in 1994 to the time when the judicial system finished with the case. It could easily take four or five generations for his lie to finally exit the public consciousness. This despite the fact that humanity currently has the fastest, most ubiquitous communications systems in the history of the species.

    Would you like to address the charge that you "invented history" when you accused the U.S. Army of deliberately infecting Indians with smallpox in 1837? There's that, and the allegation that you did the same thing when you claimed that the U.S. imposed a racial definition of their identity upon Indians in the 1887 General Allotment Act.

    Ward Churchill: I've never really stopped to spell out why I was saying what I was saying, or to flesh out the annotation, partly because I mentioned them in the context of developing broader arguments, and partly because I considered what I was saying to be more or less self-evidently true. So, I glad-handed things a bit. Mea culpa.

    http://dissidentvoice.org/Sept05/Frank0919.htm [dissidentvoice.org]

    • No offense regarding Ward Churchill....

      But blankets and smallpox rumors go back to 1763 and Fort Pitt. Sources of that story go back to 1898. (And no, in 1763 - it would not be the US Government, obviously).

      • I was a bit surprised by that claim as well. I remember watching a black-and-white history film that talked about the smalltalk blankets thing, back when I was at school, at around the time that Churchill apparently first published his stuff. He may have been one of the leading proponents of the theory, but I don't think he can be blamed for originating it.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Eldaar ( 5056619 )
      I won't claim to know much about the topic, but Wikipedia clearly states,

      "...and statements that smallpox was intentionally spread to Native Americans by John Smith in 1614 and by the United States Army at Fort Clark in 1837 (not to be confused with the well-documented use of smallpox-infected blankets at Fort Pitt in 1764)." (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ward_Churchill#Research_misconduct_investigation)

      More information regarding the intentional spread of infected blankets is described here: https:// [wikipedia.org]
    • by kbahey ( 102895 )

      Distributing blankets infected with smallpox was certainly discussed by officials in 1763, way before Ward Churchill's alleged events.

      See here [straightdope.com] and here [umass.edu].

  • I saw a TV documentary which blamed the same event on hantavirus. The story went that there were some very dry years, concentrating rodent populations in small areas where they all got infected with hantavirus.

    Then, a rainy year came and the rodent population exploded faster than natural controls could kick in, and virtually all the rodents had hantavirus and spread it to the people. They also think that hantavirus mutated to become person-to-person contagious as well. There are actually weather records

  • >> 80% of the population -- were wiped out in an epidemic...salmonella enterica bacterium...spread via infected food or water...

    So...the Aztecs were killed by Montezuma's revenge?
  • by roccomaglio ( 520780 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @09:27AM (#55945447)

    Many salmonella strains spread via infected food or water, and may have travelled to Mexico with domesticated animals brought by the Spanish, the research team said.

    My understanding is that salmonella is always around. To this day we periodically have outbreaks due to contamination. Why would it be more likely to have travelled to Mexico with domesticated animals brought by the Spanish rather than just come from the local environment? I have not seen any explanation of why it is more likely to have travelled to Mexico with domesticated animal.

    • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

      You rarely bleed from your eyes when you get salmonella.

      Different strains have different effects, particularly an unfamiliar strain suddenly introduced to a naive population.

      There's similar evidence that the same thing happened in reverse. IIRC there's some evidence a virulent strain of tuberculosis from the new world was the one that caused many of the big outbreaks in Europe.

      • There's similar evidence that the same thing happened in reverse. IIRC there's some evidence a virulent strain of tuberculosis from the new world was the one that caused many of the big outbreaks in Europe.

        Do you have any links? I would really like to read it

        • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

          Unfortunately no, it's a recollection of something I read once. I took a look, but didn't find anything online.

          It's possible I'm actually remembering syphilis, which could have existed in the old world before, but seems to have become highly virulent just after Columbus got back (https://www.infectiveperspective.com/blog/-infectious-diseases-in-america-before-european-contact).

    • I'm not sure if it was the case here, but sometimes in bacteria, pathogenicity can be transferred via phage via 'pathogenicity islands'. So if they had endemic, relatively harmless, Salmonella that got infected with a European Salmonella phage, then the phage infects the Salmonella already in everyone and the bacterial population gets switched to murder-mode. So you'd get sick because your microbiome became ill.
    • I once read that the native Americans in the U.S. and Canada were so vulnerable to our diseases because we kept domesticated animals, while they did not. The livestock agriculture seems to come with a lot of diseases. I know too little about the Aztecs to be able to say if they had domesticated animals or not.
    • I have not seen any explanation of why it is more likely to have travelled to Mexico with domesticated animal.
      What about common sense? Or your lack thereof?

      • by e r ( 2847683 )
        If your argument is that "common sense" is enough reason to treat something as proof then the counter argument is that "common sense" isn't evidence, nor proof: that's the entire point of science.

        If your argument was more along the lines of "come on, be reasonable and stop being obtuse" then I'm inclined to agree with your side, but I think you are ignoring GP's point: he's simply unwilling to believe without evidence. Your statement is nothing more than a veiled begging of the question with an ad hominem
        • For 90% of the things in the world, common sense is enough to grasp them.
          If one asks [citation needed] or "scientific proof" then I challenge his IQ.
          If you want to call that an "ad hominem", fine for me.

          • by e r ( 2847683 )

            For 90% of the things in the world, common sense is enough to grasp them.

            Agreed.

            If one asks [citation needed] or "scientific proof" then I challenge his IQ.

            This, of course, is where we disagree. I think it's appropriate to provide evidence in this situation or engage an argument on its merits rather than the merits of the person speaking.

            If you want to call that an "ad hominem", fine for me.

            I called it an ad hominem because that's what it is. So I guess we agree here too.

            • Giving no citation is not an ad hominem.
              If a murderer says something that is the truth, and I argue: he can't be right, because he is a murderer, that is an ad hominem.
              And no, I don't give you a ccitation for that, go google ...

          • It's common sense that the sun goes round the earth. Does the ground feel like it's moving?

            It's common sense that disease is caused by bad smells. Notice how typhoid outbreaks usually happen in the slums?

            • Sarcastic, but your examples are not common sense. They are a sign of ignorance or (deliberately) wrong teaching.
              The romans already measured the level of civilization by the distance between the point were you took water into the city from the point the sewage was expelled into the next fresh water ...
              It is just a shame that after the fall of the Roman Empire the Christians destroyed every knowledge about hygine because they did not want to be mixed up with Muslims, Jews or Vikings (who all washed more or l

  • That Salmonella bitch also killed a few residents of a local retirement home.
    It's about time they catch her.

  • by careysub ( 976506 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @11:32AM (#55946345)

    It is true that the bacterium discussed in the Nature, Evolution & Ecology paper discusses is of the genus Salmonella, but describing the disease that killed the Aztecs as being "salmonella" conveys the wrong information to the lay reader (or even the scientifically informed one) since this term is commonly used to describe food borne disease. There are several different pathogenic bacteria species, and subspecies, in the genus Salmonella. The infectious form of Salmonella enterica that is transmitted person-to-person is a different sub-species from ones that cause food poisoning and in this form is known as Paratyphoid Fever (similar to the related Typhoid Fever).

    • Well, there's a new low: someone complaining that the article is scientifically accurate. You people are just unpleasable, aren't you?
    • Yes, there are multiple serovars of S. enterica, but you are mostly picking nits. Salmonellosis, of which (para)typhoid fever are particularly severe forms, is caused by S. enterica, which is transmitted via infected food/water. What we call "food poisoning" is just a milder version of salmonellosis that we can often recover from without antibiotics. In the present day, the epidemiological relationship between serovar and fecal contamination of drinking water points to how severe salmonellosis is most commo

  • ... the Spanish are off the hook for genocide then?
  • by TomR teh Pirate ( 1554037 ) on Wednesday January 17, 2018 @01:36PM (#55947567)
    Having actually had typhoid fever that lasted 7 days before I was finally put on the proper medication, I can really empathize with a population that lived with such horrible illness. The vomiting, diarrhea, and a general sense that your bowels are being constantly twisted like a wet washcloth are just awful. Living with such symptoms until death finally takes you must have been horrific.

I bet the human brain is a kludge. -- Marvin Minsky

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