Friday, December 23, 2011

Columbus and Syphilis

Map of the voyages of Columbus
That’s right. For hundreds of years people have suspected that Christopher Columbus and the European outbreak of the STD syphilis were connected. Although there has been doubt and confusion over the origins of syphilis, the most recent evidence seems to support that it originated as a New World bacterial infection that made its way back to Europe with the sailors aboard the vessels commanded by Columbus.

Symptoms similar to those caused by modern syphilis were first described after 1494 in Naples, Italy. Syphilis was first called the “French Disease,” because it was originally spread by French soldiers. From Italy, the infection quickly spread all throughout Europe.

In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond states syphilis was first described in 1495. The symptoms included pustules covering the body from head to knees, it caused flesh to fall from people’s faces, and would result in death only months after initial infection. As syphilis was a bacterial infection, there was no effective treatment until the creation of penicillin. Therefore, syphilis infected and killed millions of Europeans after its arrival. A true epidemic.

Syphilis belongs to the Treponema pallidum family of bacteria. Several other less lethal diseases are also caused by treponemal bacteria, including yaws and bejel. However, these diseases are not transmitted sexually. Rather, they are generally passed from mouth to mouth or skin to skin contact.

For hundreds of years, some have theorized that syphilis evolved from one of these tropical bacterial infections initially contracted by men accompanying Columbus on one of his explorations. When the disease was taken back to Europe’s cold climate, it theoretically evolved into a venereal disease in order to survive. Wow, diseases are scary.

Others, however, have argued that Old World human remains dated to before 1492 have shown evidence of syphilitic infections. If this were true, it could not strictly be a disease originating in the New World.

According to Archeology Daily News, anthropologists Molly Zuckerman and Kristin Harper, have conducted an appraisal of all known pre-Columbian claims of syphilitic infections, which appeared in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology. They have found that evidence is lacking to support an Old World origin.

Zuckerman states that many of the pre-Columbian skeletons supposedly showing signs of chronic syphilitic infection lack some of the diagnostic criteria of the disease.

In addition, their appraisal found that many of the Old World remains had been carbon dated incorrectly, which can happen in the remains of populations which ate a diet high in seafood. When the cartilage of the bones was re-dated, it was found that all showing definite signs of syphilitic infection came from after Columbus first returned to Europe. This, once again, supported a New World origin for the disease and placed the blame squarely on the head of the Genoan born explorer for hire.

I know that Columbus never entered Yankee territory, but syphilis remained a problem even for the New England colonies. It, therefore, played a fairly significant role in the development of Yankee culture and the United States in general.

I recently posted an article discussing the bottleneck which occurred in native populations due to the spread of European diseases like small pox. Sometimes, this interaction is looked at as a one way action. In reality, it was always a give and a take. New plants and animals were brought from the New World to the Old and vice versa, which is something I try to stress with my history students. However, if the New World origin of syphilis is correct, which seems to be the case, it certainly adds new dimension to the concept of Columbian exchange.

2 comments:

  1. Truly impressive stuff! Superb stylish write up!Syphilis

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the compliment. This was one of my odder posts I think. Still, I found it interesting.

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