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A 500-year-old debate in anthropological circles involving whether Christopher Columbus and his crew brought syphilis back to Europe has been re-ignited thanks to a new report published in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology.|
The study’s authors George Armelagos, an anthropologist at Emory University along with Molly Zuckerman, a former student and now assistant professor at Mississippi State University and Kristin Harper, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University have concluded that there is no adequate evidence to suggest syphilis was prevalent in Europe prior to Columbus’ historic voyage in 1492.
Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum.
The team examined published reports that seemed to support the hypothesis that syphilis existed in Europe before Columbus and his crew set sail. But these reports have all turned out to be wrong, they now say.
Columbus and his crew toured the New World —Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and other places — during four voyages between 1492 and 1503.
Armelagos and his team concluded that among the reports they “did not find a single case of Old World treponemal disease (syphilis) that has both a certain diagnosis and a secure pre-Columbian date.”
They also found that many of the reports they looked at used non-specific indictors to diagnose syphilis, said Armelagos told the Star. And they did not provide adequate information about methods used to date specimens and did not include high quality photographs of the lesions of interest.
Their findings are published i
Examination of skeletal remains also failed to find any evidence of syphilis in Europe prior to 1492, Armelagos said.
The first recorded epidemic of the venereal disease in Europe was in 1495.
The Treponema pallidum family of bacteria causes syphilis but also causes related diseases that share symptoms but are transmitted differently through skin-to skin or oral contract.
Armelagos believes one of the crew from Columbus’ expedition contracted this form of treponemal bacteria and then it mutated and became transmissible through sexual contact. And thus syphilis was born.
One theory suggests the mutation was able to survive the cooler environment in Europe.
“This was a time of a lot of unrest in Europe with all those wars and the outbreak amplified,” Armelagos said.
But whatever caused the mutation, it unleashed what was really one of the first global diseases, the researchers say.
The authors looked at every publication of reports of so-called syphilis in Europe before 1492, said Armelagos.
“They evaluated the cases and showed there is no evidence of the condition or any good diagnosis of it before 1492.”