Italian explorer Christopher Columbus has historically been charged with bringing syphilis-like diseases to the Americas, but a new study revealed the disease was running rampant thousands of years before.
The first onset of a syphilis epidemic was documented in the late 15th Century in Europe, leading historians to believe it was brought to America when Columbus set foot on the continent.
DNA evidence has now revealed that treponematosis, an age-old syphilis-like disease, existed in Brazil more than 2,000 years before the explorer set sail for the new world.
Archaeologists discovered pathogens carrying syphilis-like diseases on the remains of four individuals in Brazil
Left untreated, treponematosis may lead to disfiguring lesions and deformities in the bone, cartilage and skin – all of which can be painful and disabling.
Kerttu Majander, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Basel, said: ‘The fact that the findings represent an endemic type of treponemal diseases, and not sexually transmitted syphilis, leaves the origin of the sexually transmitted syphilis still unsettled.’
The team examined the bones of four people who died in the coastal region of Santa Catarina in Brazil thousands of years ago.
Pathogens found in teh remains that showed signs of a syphilis-like illness that likely resulted in mouth sores and shin pains.
The study, published in Nature, said the bones were excavated at the Jabuticabeira II archeological site and have been studied since 2016.
Researchers screened 37 out of 99 samples of sequencing data and found there were between seven and 133 positive hits for diseases stemming from the Treponema family.
Italian explorer Christopher Columbus has historically been charged with bringing syphilis-like diseases to the Americas
Verena Schünemann, with University of Zurich and a co-author in the study, said: ‘Although the origin of syphilis still leaves room for imagination, at least we now know beyond a doubt that treponematoses were no strangers to the American inhabitants who lived and died centuries before the continent was explored by Europeans.
Syphilis is just one of the four diseases that make up the treponemal diseases which also include bejel, yaws, and pinta which cause chronic mouth and skin infections.
Up until now, researchers and archaeologists couldn’t find any evidence that these venereal diseases existed before the epidemic in Europe in 1492, enabling researchers to recalculate when the bacteria originated, placing it between 780 B.C. and 450 A.D.
The existence of the treponemal diseases shows the bacteria had likely already spread worldwide before anyone traveled to the Americas, Schünemann, told IFLScience.
‘Based on these results we cannot favor one of the two options,’ she said, but added that based on their findings, ‘it seems to be more likely that the bacterial family [was] already prevalent globally before Columbus sailed to the Americas.’
Researchers found that out of 99 samples, 37 contained syphilis-like diseases
The bones were excavated at the Jabuticabeira II archeological site in the coastal region of Santa Caterina in Brazil
The researchers stressed that the contagious disease is endemic and today, bejel only flourishes in areas that have hot, arid climates, like the Mediterranean and western Asia, while the yaws disease is primarily found in the humid tropics like Africa or South America.
Researchers said in the study that these findings can shed light on ‘how past populations thrived and dealt with health problems, which may trigger concerns such as stigmatization due to diseases or rights and legal issues among people living today.’
Researchers said they hope their discovery can lead to the origins of syphilis and eventually explain the history of all treponemes.
(Left) A map showing the location of the Jabuticabeira II archaeological site (Right) An evolutionary model showing the likely strains of the disease
Brenda Baker, an anthropologist at Arizona State University who was not involved in the project, told Live Science: ‘The recovery of such an ancient treponemal genome suggests that we may soon be able to fill in huge gaps in our understanding of the evolution and distribution of this pathogen in antiquity as more aDNA [ancient DNA] is recovered from other locations around the world.’