Christopher Columbus famously reached the New World in 1492, just to bring back syphilis to Spain and the rest of Europe when he returned in 1493. This is, at least, the version of the events we’re taught in history books. However, a recent study published in Anthropologischer Anzeiger: Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology has found evidence suggesting the disease may have existed in Europe long before Columbus ever made his historic voyage.
Syphilis rapidly spread throughout Europe at the turn of the 16th century. It was characterized by painless sores, which developed into wart-like rashes in the mouth and genital areas. According to the Mayo Clinic, many of the victims eventually developed disfiguring deformities and damage to the brain, nerves, and eyes — afflictions that, for many, later resulted in death.
The first documented outbreak of the once mysterious disease occurred in Naples shortly after Columbus and his crew returned from the New World, Newser reported. The timing of the report led many modern day researchers to conclude the horrific illness had been an unfortunate result of cultural diffusion, that unknowing sailors had brought the disease back after having sex in the New World. The new study, however, suggests otherwise.
Researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine and the Center for Anatomy and Bone Biology at MedUni Vienna identified preliminary evidence of congenital syphilis in Austrian skeletons dating as far back as 1320. Congenital syphilis, which is passed from mother to child, causes deformities in people’s mouth and teeth, among other symptoms. And indeed, study authors Fabian Kanz and Karl Großschmidt explained in a recent statement that the teeth exhumed from these skeletons were characterized by central notches and converging edges, known as Hutchinson’s teeth, as well as another condition called mulberry molars.
About 8.4 babies per 100,000 were born with congenital syphilis in the U.S. in 2012. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers this reflective of “missed opportunities for prevention,” as preventing syphilis transmission during sex is the best way to prevent its transmission to a child in the womb. Because of these missed opportunities in the U.S. and elsewhere, the disease still remains a global problem.
Despite studies and experts claiming syphilis’s roots were in the New World — its oldest artistic representation was found in a 6th century Peruvian jug, after all — the new findings suggest it was not Columbus who brought the disease to the rest of the world. Rather, it might have been there long before he ever lived. Ongoing molecular biological and proteome tests will further confirm or disprove these skeletons had congenital syphilis.
Source: Gaul JS, Grossschmidt K, Gusenbauer C, Kanz F. A probable case of congenital syphilis from pre-Columbian Austria. Anthropologischer Anzeiger. 2015.