In mid-16th century, 15 million people, or about 80 percent of the population of Mexico's legendary Aztec Empire, were wiped out by a mystery epidemic in just five years. However, until now, scientists had little clue about the nature of the epidemic.
But Monday, they identified an "enteric fever" as a highly likely cause of the massive devastation nearly 500 years ago, based on DNA evidence from the teeth of the long-buried victims, The Guardian reported.
In 1545, people in the Aztec state started suffering high fevers, headaches and bleeding from the eyes, mouth and nose, generally dying just three or four days later.
The epidemic, which was called "cocoliztli" by locals, was one of the numerous epidemics to ravage Mexico after the Europeans arrived, and one of the three "most devastating" ones that led to unbelievable human losses.
Just two decades before the 1545 cocoliztli pestilence, a smallpox epidemic killed roughly 5 to 8 million people. Later in the 1570s, another outbreak killed half of the remaining population.
The scientific study was published in the science journal "Nature Ecology and Evolution" by Ashild Vagene of the University of Tuebingen in Germany, and others.
The research team found traces of a strain of the Salmonella enterica bacteria after analyzing DNA from 29 skeletons, the report said. Salmonella enterica is known to have been present in Europe prior to the epidemic in Mexico.
Salmonella strains may have traveled with the domesticated animals brought by the Spanish, and spread via infected food or water, the team said.