According to a new study, scientists from the University of Zurich claim that it wasn’t Christopher Columbus who brought syphilis back to Europe after visiting America in the late 1400s.
Scientists analyzed several human remains (pictures can be seen here) and found that six skeletons from Finland, two from Estonia, and one from the Netherlands were positive for the syphilis bacteria called Treponema pallidum. This confirms that the sexually transmitted disease was spreading throughout Europe in the early 1400s – nearly a century before Columbus set sail.
While they’re still unsure as to what caused the outbreak that lasted three centuries (from the 15th to the 18th century), the researchers were able to gather more information regarding the history of the disease. The skeleton from the Netherlands revealed a previously unknown relative of the syphilis virus and another related disease called yaws although it’s not a current disease.
First author of the study, Dr. Kerttu Majander, stated, “This unforeseen discovery is particularly exciting for us,” adding, “This lineage is genetically similar to all present treponemal subspecies, but also has unique qualities that differ from them.”
They also believe that syphilis and other related pathogens were present as far back as 2,500 years ago although the venereal syphilis was first discovered sometime between the 12th and 16th centuries with the bacterial genomes dating back to the beginning of the 15th century. Professor Verena Schuenemann, who is a palaeogenetist at the University of Zurich and a co-author of the study, explained, “It seems the first known syphilis breakout cannot be solely attributed to Columbus' voyages to America.”
It has been long believed that Columbus brought back the disease after his sailors had intercourse with Native American Indian women. This conclusion was based on the fact that the first recorded case (prior to this study) was a member of the French mercenary troops back in 1495 – just a few years after Columbus returned to Europe.
According to another new study, those who were living in London in the 18th century were bombarded with syphilis as one in five people caught it. As a matter of fact, Londoners were 25 times more likely to catch the disease than in other parts of the country.
And unfortunately it’s still around today with a 20% increase in cases just in England between 2016 and 2017. A total of over 10 million people worldwide have been infected with the sexually transmitted disease just in the past several decades.