Did Columbus Bring It to Europe

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Statue of Christopher Columbus

In the late fourteen hundreds, a syphilis outbreak raged across Europe killing up to five million people. For centuries, Columbus was blamed for bringing the bacteria back from the New World.  But scientists have never found historical evidence of the bacteria in the Americas - until now. When studying two-thousand-year-old remains of a burial site in Brazil, infection on the bones suggested a syphilis-like illness.  

When scientists did a DNA analysis, they found the Treponema genome which is the bacterium that causes syphilis and several other diseases such as yaws and bejel.  They then got enough DNA to discover that the bacteria were similar to a modern-day subspecies of Treponema that causes bejel.  T. pallidum endemicum causes lesions of the skin and bones that begin in the mouth. Eventually it deforms the bones and face.  

But this doesn’t prove that Columbus brought syphilis back from the New World since the infection that spread in Europe was a sexually transmitted one. And scientists have since discovered that syphilis may have already been in Europe decades before Columbus’s return.   

One study found T. pallidum pallidum which is sexually transmitted in human remains in Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands from the early modern period beginning in the early 1400’s.   

What this latest finding does tell us is that this is the earliest discovery of the Treponema bacteria in the world and that it may have first evolved to infect humans as far back as twelve thousand years ago.   

More Information

Redefining the treponemal history through pre-Columbian genomes from Brazil
The origins of treponemal diseases have long remained unknown, especially considering the sudden onset of the first syphilis epidemic in the late 15th century in Europe and its hypothesized arrival from the Americas with Columbus’ expeditions.

Ancient DNA Shows Syphilis-Like Diseases Were Widespread in Americas Before Columbus’ Arrival
Researchers have found ancient DNA belonging to the syphilis pathogen in 2,000-year-old human bones unearthed in Brazil. It marked the discovery of the earliest known genomic evidence of Treponema pallidum, the bacterium that causes syphilis. According to Phys.org, the new study challenges existing theories about the spread of syphilis, suggesting that treponematoses, similar diseases, afflicted humans long before explorer Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas. 

The people of Jabuticabeira II: reconstruction of the way of life in a Brazilian shellmound
Sambaquis are huge shellmounds built along almost the entire Brazilian coast between 8000 and 600 years ago. In the present article, 14 osteological markers from 89 individuals excavated at the Sambaqui Jabuticabeira II (2890+/-55/2186+/-60 BP) are analyzed in order to reconstruct the population's health status and way of life.