It’s become a mainstream convention that syphilis was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus’ sailors returning from the new world. The first documented syphilis outbreak in Europe was among the French troops besieging Naples in 1495. (That’s why the French called it “the Italian disease” and the Italians called it “the French disease.”) The syphilis those poor soldiers got was far more virulent and deadly than the venereal disease we know today. It was highly contagious, spread through casual touch and oral contact, and killed within months. There are descriptions of victims’ flesh falling off their bodies before a painful death just weeks after the appearance of the first symptom.
By the mid-16th century the disease had settled into a the more subtle, insidious, long-term infection spread primarily by sexual contact that we know it as. The date of that first epidemic and the lack of any precedent in the historical record couldn’t help but suggest that this new pathogen came to the continent via Nina, Pinta or Santa Maria. Syphilis was endemic in the Americas. The skeletal record shows widespread syphilis contagion, with lesions primarily located on the legs, suggesting a non-venereal version caused by a subspecies of the Treponema pallidum bacterium. There is no such skeletal record in Europe.
There have been a few pre-Columbian skeletal finds, including in Pompeii, that suggest a form of syphilis going as far back as the Romans. Some researchers think some Medieval skeletons that show signs of leprosy might actually have been afflicted with syphilis. It’s all been speculative, though, because both dates and disease are hard to pin down, and because ancient and medieval sources don’t describe any disease that matches the symptoms that sprang up in the 15th century.
Also, recent genetic studies of the Treponema pallidum bacterium indicate that the STD version is a more recent descendant of the American strain that causes the non-veneral yaws. That old yaws strain could well have begun in ancient Africa or the Middle East then the two diverged.
Museum of London researchers examining the skeletal remains excavated at St. Mary Spital, an Augustinian priory and hospital founded in East London in 1197, think they’ve found stronger evidence of pre-Columbian European syphilis.
Brian Connell, an osteologist for the Museum of London who studied the bones, said he had no doubt that the skeletons were buried before Columbus’ voyage. Radiocarbon dating of the samples is estimated to be 95 percent accurate.
“We’re confident that Christopher Columbus is simply not a feature of the emergence and timing of the disease in Europe,” Connell said.
The seven syphilitic skeletons from St Mary’s Spital, two from 1200-1250 and five from 1250-1400, are not only better preserved than those considered previously, but buried alongside other skeletons and objects such as coins that corroborate radiocarbon dating results.
Connell said it was probably a coincidence that the first well-documented outbreak of the disease was after Columbus’ return.
Could be. Or the New World yaws bacterium might have encountered the Old World yaws bacterium and been stimulated to mutate into something new. It seems unlikely to me that it was a complete coincidence, especially considering that genetic analysis of the strains themselves indicates European syphilis is a descendant of the New World bacterium. Osteological examination is inherently limited because you can’t know for sure what caused the bone lesions, even when they’re characteristic of syphilis.