The End of the Aztecs

From The Independent (hat tip: Tim Furnish):

Mystery over death of 15 million Aztecs may be solved after nearly 500 years, study suggests

DNA analysis of skeletons reveals traces of disease

Judith Vonberg 

Scientists believe they may have discovered the cause of an epidemic that struck Mexico’s Aztec population in 1545, killing up to 15 million people.

In a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, they describe how DNA extracted from the teeth of 29 skeletons buried in a cemetery in southern Mexico revealed previously unidentified traces of the salmonella enterica bacterium.

The bacterium is known to cause enteric fever, of which typhoid is an example. According to the study, the symptoms tally with those mentioned in records from the time, which describe victims developing red spots on the skin, vomiting, and bleeding from various body orifices.

The epidemic was one of several to hit the indigenous population soon after the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century.

“When the Europeans arrived in Mexico, they brought with them lots of different diseases,” Ashild Vagene, co-author of the study, told The Independent. “There were dozens of epidemics across the New World and Mexico was particularly hard hit.”

“What we’re talking about is the devastating decimation of indigenous populations by previously unknown diseases,” Dr Caroline Dodds Pennock, lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield, told The Independent.

“Mortality rates were maybe 80 or 90 per cent by 1600,” she said. “Imagine nine out of every 10 people dying – it’s almost unimaginable.”

The cause of the 1545-1550 epidemic has been debated for more than a century. Measles, pneumonic plague and influenza have all been suggested as possibilities, but historians have never reached a consensus.

More at the link.

Remember the Alamo!

Everyone has heard about the Alamo, but fewer know that it is only one of five extent Spanish colonial-era missions in San Antonio, Texas. There is a chain of them that lines the San Antonio River, and it is possible to visit all of them in a day. The four non-Alamo ones are run by the National Park Service and the whole thing has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What is a “mission”? Essentially, a fortified, self-supporting community run by Franciscan friars, to convert natives to Catholicism, to teach them skills like agriculture, weaving, or metalworking, and to make them loyal subjects of the Spanish crown. (The San Antonio missions also served as a bulwark against French encroachment from the east.) But why would any Indians go in for this? The local Coahuitecan Indians, unfortunately, suffered greatly from European disease and Comanche raids; the missions and the new way of life that they offered promised a modicum of stability. They were not intended to be permanent: once the natives were judged to be mature enough in their religion and politics, the missions were to be “secularized” – they lost their special status, their lands were privatized among their inhabitants, and all religious activities were transferred from the Franciscans to the local diocese. This process largely came to pass by 1785.

The NPS has run them since the 1970s. I was pleased to note that the chapels in each mission are still under the control of the Archdiocese of San Antonio and used for religious services. (Alas, sometimes this means that you can’t get in to see them, because they are in use. But the two we did see were wonderful.)

Photographs, from south to north:


Mission San Francisco de la Espada.


Mission San Juan Capistrano.


Mission San José y San Miguel de Aguayo. This seems to have been the biggest and most important of the missions. The main visitor center for the entire park is here.


Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña

The Alamo (Spanish for “Cottonwood”) itself was originally the Misión San Antonio de Valero, but you will not find much reference inside to its former status. It is not run by the National Parks Service, but by the Texas General Land Office, and is claimed to be the “Shrine of Texas Liberty.” That is, on March 6, 1836, after a thirteen-day siege, Mexican General Antonio López de Santa Anna launched an assault on the Texas revolutionaries who had taken shelter in the mission chapel, and killed every one (this was a common fate for those who had resisted a siege). But the Texans never surrendered, nor did they seek to retreat, and so the Alamo became an inspiring defeat, like the Battle of Thermopylae. I was unprepared for just how much of a tourist attraction it was: it was packed, and there was a Ripley’s Believe It or Not!® attraction across the street.


I had no idea that Phil Collins was a fan of the Battle of the Alamo. For an epic poem about it, enjoy The Texiad, by Reinhardt’s own Wayne Glowka.


Photos of things historical, from a short jaunt to St. Augustine, Florida:

1. On the way down, we stopped at Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, Georgia. This is run by the National Parks Service and features a WPA-built visitor center.

The site itself is quite large and boasts “17000 years of continuous settlement” in successive waves (Paleo-Indian, Archaic, Woodland, Mississippian, and colonial).

One major site is a reconstructed council chamber, designated the “earth lodge,” with a circle of seats around the outside, each one larger and higher until one reaches a platform across from the door, with three seats on it for the leaders. There was a fire pit in the middle and four oak trunk pillars holding up the roof. Unfortunately, the interior was too dark for good photographs.

In common with the Etowah, Cahokia, and Kolomoki sites, Ocmulgee has a large temple mound, built up over many years, one basketful of soil at a time. The parking lot in the front is actually a former railway cutting which destroyed two-thirds of another mound in the nineteenth century. To think that people used to do this!

2. We then headed on to St. Augustine, Florida, which we had been wanting to see for some time. Like Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., it is a coastal settlement from the early days of European contact; unlike those cities, it is significantly older, having been founded by the Spanish in the mid-sixteenth century. Unfortunately, today it is also a lot more touristy, since it it within the orbit of Disney World and possesses a nice beach. But the Castillo de San Marcos remains a well-run historical site.

The fort itself dates from 1672. It was transferred to the British in 1763 after the Seven Years’ War, and back to Spain in 1783 after the American War of Independence. It became American after the United States annexed Florida in 1821 (and was briefly Confederate in 1861-62). It was last used for military purposes during the Spanish-American war, when it served as a prison for deserters. These and other aspects of the fort’s history are detailed in signage and presented by uniformed guides, some of whom will demonstrate firing a canon at set times.

From Wikipedia, an arial view of the place, showing the early modern star-fort design:

Saints Galore

For a year starting in August 2013 I posted a saint a day to Facebook. I was reminded of this project again today when visiting the Lake Acworth Antique and Flea Market, at which San Benito Libreria Católica had a space. As the name of this shop suggests, it largely caters to Mexican Catholics, and so featured saints that are significant to them in various ways. Alas, San Jorge is not one of them! But I found the next best thing:

This, believe it or not, is St. James the Apostle (“Santiago Apóstol”), in his aspect as the Matamoros, that is, the Moor-Slayer. St. James’s major shrine is at Compostella in Galicia; over the course of the Middle Ages he became a patron of the reconquest of Iberia from the Muslims (even if the battle where he made his first appearance was entirely made up).

Other prayer cards. I did not cover any of these on Facebook:

Wikipedia: Santo Niño de Atocha or Holy Child of Atocha is a Roman Catholic image of the Child Jesus popular among the Hispanic cultures of Spain, Latin America, the Philippines and the southwestern United States. It is distinctly characterized by a basket he carries, along with a staff, drinking gourd, and a cape with the shell symbol of a pilgrimage to Saint James.

Wikipedia: Maximón, also called San Simón, is a folk saint venerated in various forms by Maya people of several towns in the highlands of Western Guatemala. The veneration of Maximón is not approved by the Roman Catholic Church…. He is less a benevolent deity than a bully whom one does not want to anger. His expensive tastes in alcohol and cigarettes indicate that he is a sinful human character, very different from the ascetic ideals of Christian sainthood. Devotees believe that prayers for revenge, or success at the expense of others, are likely to be granted by Maximón.

Wikipedia: Saint Charbel Makhluf, O.L.M. (1828-1898) was a Maronite monk and priest from Lebanon. During his life he obtained a wide reputation for holiness and he has been canonized by the Catholic Church.

A prayer to the Powerful Arm (even if the illustration is of the Powerful Hand). I would like to know more about this.

UPDATE: From Lucky W. Amulet archive:

The image is of a huge wounded (but not bleeding) right hand, which points up through clouds, cut palm toward us. The lines in the palm are shown, and it looks like the head line is cut. The fingers are all of eerily uniform length, with a long thin thumb. Small, disembodied, winged cherub-heads float in the sky above the hand.

To the left and right of the hand are four kneeling female angels who gaze upward and bear the tools of the crucifixion. Of the two on the left, one holds a bowl to catch Jesus’ blood; the other holds a spear and vinegar sop in one hand and hammer and nails in the other. Of the two on the right, one holds a cross and the other a crown of thorns.

Atop clouds on the little finger stands an older male saint with a book. The ring finger’s clouds hold a female saint; the middle finger’s, a younger male saint with a white lily; the forefinger’s, the Virgin Mary; and the deformed thumb’s clouds bear the toddler Jesus holding a globe in his right hand and raising his left.

The prayer on the back is printed first in Spanish and then in English. The English version:

“O Powerful Hand of God! I place my Christian soul before you, and in my despair and anguish, beseech you to aid me with your almighty power. At your feet I place the devotion of my sorrowful heart that I might be delivered from my suffering. May the loving kindness of your power help me and give me strength and wisdom to live in peace and happiness. (Here present your petitions). Amen.”

To which… a reader of this page… informs us that “the figures atop the four fingers represent St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and her parents, St. Joachim and St. Anne. The Christ Child is depicted on the thumb.”

Wikipedia: Dominic Savio (1842-1857) was an Italian adolescent student of Saint John Bosco. He was studying to be a priest when he became ill and died at the age of 14, possibly from pleurisy. Savio was canonised a saint on June 12, 1954, by Pope Pius XII, making him the youngest non-martyr to be canonised in the Catholic Church.

Wikipedia: Saint Hedwig of Silesia (1174-1243), a member of the Bavarian comital House of Andechs, was Duchess of Silesia from 1201 and of Greater Poland from 1231 as well as High Duchess consort of Poland from 1232 until 1238. She was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1267.

Wikipedia: Expeditus is said to have been a Roman centurion in Armenia who was martyred around April 303 in what is now Turkey, for converting to Christianity. Considered the patron saint of speedy cases, he is commemorated by the Roman Catholic Church on April 19.

Not a prayer card, but an entire novena to Saint Toribio Romo González (1900-1928), who “was a Mexican martyr who died in the Cristero War… There is a belief among some Mexicans that Toribio Romo has appeared to some who cross the border illegally to assist them in distress. He is used as an icon for the hope of food, water and money, as well as safety” (Wikipedia). He was canonized in 2000.

In fairness, I should also say that there were plenty of other prayer cards and posters to better-known saints, like Michael, Lucy, Martin of Tours, and Jude, who will ward off Protestant propagandists:

St. Benedict, whose day it was:

And the Virgin of Guadeloupe, who is here rendered in the style of Precious Moments™, although Dr. Anne Good tells me that there is a specific diminutive name for this depiction, and that they’re fairly common in Mexico: