Did Christopher Columbus bring syphilis to Europe? Study puts myth to rest

ZURICH, Switzerland — The historic voyage of Christopher Columbus to the New World is famous for many reasons. One odd legend surrounding the explorer’s journey is the belief Columbus brought syphilis back to Europe from the Americas. A new study however, has scientists getting ready to rewrite the history books. Researchers in Switzerland say they have evidence the disease actually existed in Europe long before Columbus ever set sail.

Syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease which causes serious complications if left untreated. Patients usually find sores around the genitals before the symptoms progress on to rashes and lesions. In untreated cases, syphilis can affect the brain and other organs, even causing death years after the initial infection.

Researchers from the University of Zurich say the STD is a subspecies of the Treponema pallidum bacteria. This particular family of bacteria (treponematoses) also causes other skin infections like yaws and bejel. To this day, the origin of syphilis is unclear.

Why is Columbus blamed for syphilis?

The disease had devastating effects on Europe’s population from the 15th to 18th century. Some suspect Columbus’ sailors contracted syphilis in the Americas since yaws, the disease’s bacterial cousin, is only found in tropical and subtropical regions today.

The new report in Current Biology uncovers ancient human remains in Finland, Estonia, and the Netherlands which also have these treponematoses. Using molecular dating on the ancient bacteria and carbon dating on the samples, the team finds these pathogens date back to the same era as the outbreak in Europe.

“Our data indicates that yaws was spread through all of Europe. It was not limited to the tropics, as it is today,” says Professor Verena Schünemann in a university statement.

‘We may have yet to revise our theories’

The international team adds that one skeleton from the Netherlands contains a new and unknown strain of the Treponema pallidum family. This pathogen, researchers say, evolved along with syphilis and yaws but no longer exists in the world. Study authors say this may be the key to proving syphilis has roots in Europe prior to Columbus’ voyage.

“This unforeseen discovery is particularly exciting for us, because this lineage is genetically similar to all present treponemal subspecies, but also has unique qualities that differ from them,” first author Kerttu Majander explains.

“Using our ancient genomes, it is now possible for the first time to apply a more reliable dating to the treponema family tree,” Schünemann adds.

The new analysis reveals that Treponema pallidum dates back 2,500 years. For syphilis, scientists trace its oldest common ancestors as far back as the 12th century.

“It seems that the first known syphilis breakout cannot be solely attributed to Columbus’ voyages to America,” Schünemann concludes. “The strains of treponematoses may have co-evolved and interchanged genetic material before and during the intercontinental contacts. We may yet have to revise our theories about the origins of syphilis and other treponemal diseases.”

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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