Did syphilis really originate in the New World? An old theory reconsidered.

Outside Naples, 1495, an unknown epidemic struck the mercenary army of the French King Charles VIII, subsequently considered to be the first recorded outbreak of syphilis in the Old World.  As early as the sixteenth century, the sudden emergence of the disease was popularly attributed to Columbus’ recent voyage to the New World.  Yet doubts have frequently been raised.  Did syphilis really originate in the Americas?  Or had it always existed in the Old World, and just by coincidence emerged with exceptional virulence shortly after Columbus’ return?

Twenty years ago, a comprehensive review of evidence for treponemal disease in the New and Old Worlds (Baker & Armalagos 1988) lent support to the popular theory of Columbian origin.  Since then, however, a growing number of cases of treponemal disease have been reported in the pre-Columbian Old World.  A paper published last month (Harper & Armelagos) returns to the old question in the light of the new evidence, and provides a comprehensive assessment of the evidence to date.

The evidence is hard to assess – for two reasons.  The first is the difficulty of the identification of dry bone lesions that are specific to treponemal disease – let alone syphilis.  The second relates to the dating of the evidence; this is rendered more complex by the so-called “marine reservoir effect”, as a result of which ante-mortem consumption of marine foods can generate dates that are too early by a factor of hundreds of years.

On the first issue Harper et al. argue that it is impossible with certainty to distinguish syphilis from other treponemal disease in the fossil record, but concur with Hackett (1976) that there are two macroscopic features that may be considered diagnostic of treponemal disease.  These features do occur in the fossil record.  Ultimately, it is the second issue, that of dating, which poses the greater obstacle to any conclusive argument on the origin of syphilis.  Of the 54 papers reviewed 12 include information on radiocarbon dating, and of these only 4 discuss the effect of marine reservoir.  None of the cases considered can with certainty be assigned to the pre-Columbian period.  Ultimately, therefore, the evaluation of Harper et al. concludes that there is not a single published case from the Old World that can be confidently diagnosed as treponemal, and that has a radiocarbon date that places it firmly in the pre-Columbian period.  Yet there is overwhelming evidence for its prevalence in the New World before this date, and for its occurrence in the Old World thereafter.

Thus, 20 years after Baker & Armelagos’ comprehensive review, the evidence still suggests that syphilis or its progenitor arose in the New World.

Kristin N. Harper, George J. Armelagos et al., “The Origin and Antiquity of Syphilis Revisited: An Appraisal of Old World Pre-Columbian Evidence for Treponemal Infection”, Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 54: 99-133, 2011.

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/doi/10.1002/ajpa.21613/full

Baker B. & Armelagos G., “The origin and antiquity of syphilis: paleopathological diagnosis and interpretation”, Current  Anthropol ogy, 29:703–738, 1988.

Hackett C.,  Diagnostic criteria of syphilis, yaws and treponarid (treponematoses) and of some other diseases in dry bones (for use in osteo-archaeology), Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 1976.

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