World and Canada News

In the World

After 500 years, a germ that may have wiped out Aztecs discovered

By Mariëtte Le Roux Agence/France-Presse/Jan. 16, 2018

In 1545, disaster struck Mexico’s Aztec nation when people started coming down with high fevers and headaches, 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 percent 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 in question for nearly 500 years.

On Monday, scientists swept aside smallpox, measles, mumps, and influenza as likely suspects, fingering a typhoid-like “enteric fever” for which they found DNA evidence on the teeth of long-dead victims.

“The 1545-50 cocoliztli was one of many epidemics to affect Mexico after the arrival of Europeans, but was specifically the second of three epidemics that were most devastating and led to the largest number of human losses,” said Ashild Vagene of the University of Tuebingen in Germany.

“The cause of this epidemic has been debated for over a century by historians and now we are able to provide direct evidence through the use of ancient DNA to contribute to a longstanding historical question,” she told AFP.

Vagene co-authored a study published in the science journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

The cocoliztli outbreak is considered one of the deadliest epidemics in human history, approaching the “Black Death” bubonic plague that felled some 25 million people in western Europe in the 14th century - about half the regional population.

European colonisers spread disease as they ventured into the New World, bringing germs that local populations had never encountered, and therefore had no immunity against.

The 1545 cocoliztli pestilence in what is today Mexico and part of Guatemala came just two decades after a smallpox epidemic killed an estimated 5-8 million people in the immediate wake of the Spanish arrival.

‘Strong candidate’

A second cocoliztli outbreak from 1576 to 1578 killed half the remaining population.

“In the cities and large towns, 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,” is how Franciscan historian Fray Juan de Torquemada is cited as chronicling the period.

Even at the time, physicians said the symptoms did not match those of better-known diseases such as measles and malaria.

On Monday, scientists said they have likely 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.

Salmonella enterica is known to have been present in Europe in the Middle Ages.

“We tested for all bacterial pathogens and DNA viruses for which genomic data is available,” and salmonella enterica was the only germ detected, co-author Alexander Herbig, also from Tuebingen University, told AFP.

It is possible, however, that some pathogens were either undetectable, or completely unknown.

“We cannot say with certainty that S. enterica was the cause of the cocoliztli epidemic,” said team member Kirsten Bos.

“We do believe that it should be considered a strong candidate.”

Even the eyelashes freeze: Russia sees temperatures hit minus 67 C

The Associated Press /Jan. 16, 2018

MOSCOW -- Even thermometers can't keep up with the plunging temperatures in Russia's remote Yakutia region, which hit minus 67 degrees Celsius (minus 88.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in some areas Tuesday.

In Yakutia -- a region of 1 million people about 3,300 miles (5,300 kilometres) east of Moscow -- students routinely go to school even in minus 40 degrees. But school was cancelled Tuesday throughout the region and police ordered parents to keep their children inside.

In the village of Oymyakon, one of the coldest inhabited places on earth, state-owned Russian television showed the mercury falling to the bottom of a thermometer that was only set up to measure down to minus 50 degrees. In 2013, Oymyakon recorded an all-time low of minus 71 degrees Celsius (minus 98 Fahrenheit).

Over the weekend, two men froze to death when they tried to walk to a nearby farm after their car broke down. Three other men with them survived because they were wearing warmer clothes, investigators reported.

But the press office for Yakutia's governor said Tuesday that all households and businesses in the region have working central heating and access to backup power generators.

Residents of Yakutia are no strangers to cold weather and this week's cold spell was not even dominating local news headlines Tuesday.

But some media outlets published cold-weather selfies and stories about stunts in the extreme cold. Women posted pictures of their frozen eyelashes, while YakutiaMedia published a picture of Chinese students who got undressed to take a plunge in a thermal spring.

And in Canada

Canada's deepest cave discovered in southeastern British Columbia

Explorers had to scuba dive through underground lake to reach deepest shafts of cave called Bisaro Anima

David Bell/CBC News/Jan. 16, 2018

Calgary-based explorers on an expedition in British Columbia just north of Fernie have discovered Canada's deepest cave, its longest shaft stretching roughly the length of a 35-storey building.

Kathleen Graham and Jeremy Bruns were part of the nine-person team of volunteer explorers who made the discovery early in the new year.

Graham said the last time a team set out, members learned the cave was so deep that they didn't have enough equipment to get all the way to the bottom.

"We did an expedition on Thanksgiving," Graham told CBC Calgary's The Homestretch on Monday.

"We had left the previous time, we'd run out of bolts and ropes. We were standing there at the edge looking down at something more. We returned with more bolts and ropes. We got into some huge horizontal passage and then we hit a lake."

The cave, named Bisaro Anima, can only be reached by helicopter.

It's 5.3 kilometres long and 670 metres deep. The longest shaft is 105 metres.

Bruns stumbled across the cave's entrance five years ago on an expedition organized by his father, Henry Bruns.

"We went up there for about a week and looked for some holes in the ground. We found this little crack that turned out to be this big, big cave," he said.

"We've got all sorts of different kinds of passages in there. We've got deep canyons, small squeezes and lots of loose rock that is in danger of falling down on you constantly. It can be a challenging environment."

Team members wanted to learn what was beyond the lake they observed in October.

"The logistics of getting scuba equipment there are quite onerous," Graham said.

"The gear arrived in poor condition so we had to make a Plan B, but we got our primary objective done. One of the tanks of air was totally empty."

Bruns said documenting what the group found was the priority.

"We measure point to point as we travel through the cave, so we are not just wandering around finding new stuff," he said. "We set survey stations. We measure distance, inclination and azimuth from station to station."

Graham said because of the distance involved getting in and out, they had to sleep in the cave, camping underground for a week.

"It was like hanging out in a refrigerator. It's 100 per cent humidity, 2 C, cold and dark. We sleep in hammocks. The ground is a lot of big boulders so not many flat spots. I sleep with a light around my neck, so if I wake up in the middle of the night, I don't have to panic," she said.

And it was a communications-free time, which had its advantages.

"We've got a satellite phone at the surface, but we resort to writing notes to each other in books. You are not in touch with the outside world and that's one of the things that I like. You just go back to the basics of keeping warm and fed and none of that Facebook stuff."

Bruns said it's incredible being the first to experience something.

"We are not just gluttons for punishment," he said with a laugh.

"We are really excited at the notion of being places where nobody has ever been before, making a map of that and discovering new things and bringing that back to share with our colleagues and the wider community."

Bruns and Graham are part of a local group that brings together caving enthusiasts — the Alberta Speleological Society (ASS). They share their findings at meet and greets at 8 p.m. on the first and third Wednesday of each month at the Hop In Brew pub on 12th Avenue S.W.

The expeditions were supported financially by ASS and theRoyal Canadian Geographical Society.