Columbus’s crew may have brought back syphilis: Study

New research shows that syphilis – a sexually transmitted disease was carried to Europe aboard Christopher Columbus' ships as they sailed home from the New World. The disease was not spread through sexual contact at the time, but adapted to survive once it got to Europe, Emory University researchers say.

Curable in the present day by antibiotics, syphilis used to be a debilitating and often fatal disease.

Caused by the Treponema pallidum bacteria it affected the heart, brain, eyes and bones and was the scourge of every major city. Ever since the first recorded case in Europe took place in 1495 - three years after Columbus's first voyage to the New World - doctors have argued over its origins.

“Syphilis has been around for 500 years,” study co-leader Molly Zuckerman, a former Emory graduate student who is now an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, said in an Emory news release. “People started debating where it came from shortly afterwards, and they haven't stopped since. It was one of the first global diseases, and understanding where it came from and how it spread may help us combat diseases today.”

The team of researchers after analyzing skeletal evidence in 54 published reports found that syphilis did not exist in Europe until after Columbus' historic voyage to the New World in 1492. They said that most of the skeletal material lacked characteristics that would meet standard diagnostic criteria for chronic syphilis, such as small holes on the skull and long bones. Their appraisal is published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The authors write, “We did not find a single case of ‘Old World’ treponemal disease that has both a certain diagnosis and a secure pre-Columbian date…We also demonstrate that many of the reports use non-specific indicators to diagnose treponemal disease, do not provide adequate information about the methods used to date specimens, and do not include high-quality photographs of the lesions of interest.”

In the cases where the skeletons definitely were afflicted with syphilis, the researchers noted that they came from coastal areas, which would make radio-carbon dating difficult. This is because it’s likely the victims ate seafood, which can contain carbon many thousands of years old from water wells. The team adds, “Solid evidence supporting an Old World origin for the disease remains absent.”

“This is the first time that all 54 of these cases have been evaluated systematically,” said study co-author George Armelagos, an anthropologist at Emory, in the news release. “The evidence keeps accumulating that a progenitor of syphilis came from the New World with Columbus' crew and rapidly evolved into the venereal disease that remains with us today.”

The researchers suggested someone sailing with Columbus brought the bacterium Treponema - to Europe. This type of bacteria also causes other diseases that are spread through skin-to-skin or oral contact in tropical climates. Their theory is that the bacteria mutated into the sexually transmitted form to survive in the cooler and more sanitary conditions of Europe.

“In reality, it appears that venereal syphilis was the byproduct of two different populations meeting and exchanging a pathogen,” Zuckerman said. “It was an adaptive event, the natural selection of a disease, independent of morality or blame.” He added, “The origin of syphilis is a fascinating, compelling question…The current evidence is pretty definitive, but we shouldn't close the book and say we're done with the subject. The great thing about science is constantly being able to understand things in a new light.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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