Death of the Aztecs
Oral histories passed down from generation to generation identified a pestilence, or cocoliztli in the Aztec Nahuatl language. Victims of cocoliztli had symptoms that included a lightly colored rash on the chest, later called “rose spots,” abdominal pain accompanied by bleeding from the bowels, and vomiting. Those affected would suffer from a prolonged high fever that would create a coma-like state, muttering delirium, and the picking at real or imagined objects. This type of pestilence spread easily from one person to another. Death must have been a relief.
The cocoliztli is an enteric fever. Typhoid and Ebola are two of the types of fever that ravage populations with sustained high fevers for several weeks as well as gastrointestinal bleeding. If the body is already compromised in some way, a person does not have the ability to fight the fever and death occurs. For the Aztec, hundreds of people must have died on a daily basis. According to Franciscan friar Juan de Torquemada, who documented the history and culture of the Aztecs in colonial New Spain, described in his work, Indian Monarchy (Monarqui Indiana), that “big ditches were dug, and from morning to sunset the priests did nothing else but carry the dead bodies and throw them into the ditches.”
The ditches of mass-graves of the cocoliztli victims were daunting. Yet, the 1545 epidemic was not the first time that the Aztec population had been ravaged. In 1520, just as the Spaniards were completing their conquest, a smallpox epidemic claimed the lives of approximately 8 million people. A population of almost 22 million in the early 16th century dropped to about 14 million. As the population began to recover naturally, another epidemic struck. Between 1545 and 1550, 15 million people died from the first and most devastating cocoliztli outbreak. In 1576, yet another cocoliztli fever killed another 2 million indigenous people. Within 60 years, the indigenous population of colonial New Spain had collapsed.
For generations, many historians and researchers debated over what exactly killed so many indigenous people. The common thought was that diseases such as smallpox, mumps, measles, and influenza came to the New World with the arrival of Europeans. When the native populations contracted such maladies, they had no natural resistance and as such, died. While these diseases did cause epidemics in the New World, they were nothing like the impacts of the cocoliztli.
At the time of the millions of Aztec deaths, contemporaries knew the the cause of death was not from common European diseases. The symptoms presented did not match exactly with the mumps, measles, malaria, influenza, or smallpox. Matching documentation from the era as well as corroborating the stories passed down through the generations would take some work. Modern technology presented an opportunity to find an answer.