Did Europeans bring syphilis to the New World, or did they catch it here and carry it back to Europe? The question, long debated, may finally be settled: Bruce Rothschild, a paleopathologist at the Arthritis Center of Northeast Ohio, has found convincing evidence that syphilis plagued the Americas long before the arrival of Columbus.
Some previous studies had suggested that syphilis existed in the pre-Columbian New World and that a careful examination of skeletal remains might resolve the question, since syphilis is known to scar and deform bones. But researchers could not distinguish syphilis-ravaged bones from bones attacked by two related nonvenereal diseases, yaws and bejel. All three diseases are caused by bacteria of the genus Treponema.
Rothschild studied the skeletons of people who died during the last few hundred years and who are known to have suffered from either yaws, bejel, or syphilis. (Having one of the diseases confers resistance to the others.) He noticed several characteristic patterns. Syphilis, for example, primarily left lesions on just two bones in the body: the tibia and fibula- -the bones of the lower leg. Yaws always affected more than three bones, including the hands and feet. Bejel affected fewer than three bones, but almost never the hands and feet.
Rothschild applied these criteria to 687 skeletons from eight different populations in the New World, ranging in age from 400 to 6,000 years old. Skeletons from Florida, Ecuador, and three New Mexico populations all showed clear signs of syphilis, at least 800 and perhaps 1,600 years ago. The more northerly populations, in Illinois, Virginia, and Ohio, were afflicted with yaws, going back at least 6,000 years.
Rothschild has not found any evidence of syphilis in the Old World before Columbus, based on his study of 1,000 skeletons from Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. He believes syphilis originated in the New World, perhaps as a result of a mutation in the bacterium that causes yaws. Rothschild believes that Columbus and his crew contracted syphilis and caused a documented outbreak in Europe on their return. He plans to study a collection of skeletons in the Bahamas later this fall, to see if syphilis was present there at the time Columbus came ashore. We have a ring of fire, if you will, in Florida and Ecuador and Peru, he says. What we’re looking to do is find the bull’s-eye.