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The Mixtec people, who created vast civilizations, including this one near Oaxaca, were devastated by a mysterious illness. Photo: DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Contributor

A mysterious illness that devastated native civilizations in the 1500s may have been identified, according to a paper published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution. “In less than a century, the number of people living in Mexico fell from an estimated 20 million to 2 million,” writes The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang. The researchers found DNA from Salmonella enterica, which causes paratyphoid fever, in the teeth of 11 people.

Why it matters: Some scholars believe such plagues made it easier for the Spanish and English to conquer the complex, sophisticated nations that existed in the Americas before Columbus’ arrival. European colonists brought dozens of diseases to the Americas (and brought a smaller number back to Europe). Since native populations had no immunities, the pathogens swept through towns, killing millions long before the colonists themselves arrived.

Go deeper

Biden says $1,400 stimulus payments can start going out this month

Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

President Biden said Saturday that the Senate passage of his $1.9 trillion COVID relief package means the $1,400 direct payments for most Americans can begin going out later this month.

Driving the news: The Senate voted 50-49 Saturday to approve the sweeping legislation. The House is expected to pass the Senate's version of the bill next week before it heads to Biden's desk for his signature.

7 hours ago - Health

COVID-19 drives smell loss awareness, research

A health worker carries out an olfactory test outside Buenos Aires. Photo: Alejandro Pagni/AFP via Getty Images

The pandemic has thrust a relatively unknown ailment, anosmia — or smell loss — into the international spotlight.

Why it matters: Researchers hope smell testing becomes as standard as the annual flu shot, helping to detect early signs of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.