Columbus did bring back the clap, say scientists

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Rarely can so much scientific attention have been paid to whether or not one small group of men put it where they shouldn't.

And the latest research seems to indicate that Christopher Columbus and his crew really did bring syphilis back from the New World when they returned to Europe in 1493.

Some scientists had queried this on the basis of earlier European skeletons that apparently showed signs of the disease.

But a review of the evidence from the skeletons - all 54 published reports of it - has found that not one bit of it stacks up. In fact, say the authors, it actually bolsters the view that there was no syphilis in Europe till the crew's little sex tourism jaunt.

"This is the first time that all 54 of these cases have been evaluated systematically," says George Armelagos, an anthropologist at Emory University and co-author of the appraisal.

"The evidence keeps accumulating that a progenitor of syphilis came from the New World with Columbus' crew and rapidly evolved into the venereal disease that remains with us today."

The team re-examined the data, and found that most of the skeletal material failed to meet at least one of the standardized, diagnostic criteria for chronic syphilis, such as pitting on the skull known as caries sicca and pitting and swelling of the long bones.

The few that did meet the criteria tended to come from coastal regions where seafood was a big part of the diet. Here, though, the so-called 'marine reservoir effect' of eating seafood containing 'old carbon' can throw off radiocarbon dating by hundreds of years.

"Once we adjusted for the marine signature, all of the skeletons that showed definite signs of treponemal disease appeared to be dated to after Columbus returned to Europe," says team member Kristin Harper.

One hypothesis is that a subspecies of the Treponema bacterium from the  tropical New World mutated into the venereal subspecies, in order to survive in cooler Europe.

The first recorded epidemic occurred in Europe in 1495 - showing, if the theory is right, that the Europeans weren't slow in putting it about either.