Tracking syphilis

Published: Saturday 15 February 1997

Did the Europeans bring syphilis with them, a venereal disease caused by infection with the bacteria Treponema pallidum , or did they catch it from the places they travelled and take it back to Europe? The question, long debated, may finally be settled. Bruce Rothschild, a paleopathologist at the Arthritis Centre of Northeast Ohio, has found convincing evidence that syphilis plagued the US long before the arrival of Columbus. About 687 skeletons from eight different populations in the New World, ranging from 400 to 6,000 years were analysed. Syphilis, primarily left lesions on just two bones in the body: the tibia and fibula -- the bones of the lower leg. Skeletons from Florida, Ecuador and three New Mexico populations showed clear signs of syphilis. No sign of the disease has been found in the Old World before Columbus. Rothschild believes that Columbus and his crew caught syphilis and caused a documented outbreak in Europe.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.