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Columbus Didn't Do It

The theory that Christopher Columbus's crew carried syphilis back to Europe from the New World has sprung another leak. Skeletons recently unearthed from a medieval friary in the U.K. show unmistakable signs of the disease, researchers say, suggesting that England was hit by the scourge at least 50 years before Columbus's voyage.

The so-called Columbian theory of syphilis's spread was based on finding skeletal remains bearing the signature of the disease--thickened leg and arm bones and skull scars--in a suggestive pattern. Although 18th and 19th century archaeologists had discovered plenty of diseased remains at prehistoric sites in the Americas, they found no traces of the disease in European bones until a major epidemic hit Europe about 1500, just after Columbus returned from his 1493 voyage. In the last decade, however, researchers have unearthed about a dozen pre-Columbian skeletons in England and Ireland that also showed signs of the disease. But until recently the oddball cases weren't enough to sink the Columbian theory.

Now, paleopathologist Anthea Boylston of the University of Bradford and her colleagues have uncovered evidence of a local miniepidemic that predates Columbus's homecoming. In an as-yet-unpublished study, the team examined 245 skeletons unearthed from a cemetery in Hull in northeastern England that was used between 1319 and 1539. They found three skeletons with definite signs of the disease and more than 100 others with trace indications. Radiocarbon dating of the most obvious syphilis sufferer revealed that the man--probably a resident of the adjacent friary--died between 1300 and 1450, well before Columbus's birth. "There's no doubt that these guys had syphilis," says Columbian proponent George Armelagos of Emory University in Atlanta. "But the small number of cases is still troubling, he says. "It's not the epidemiological pattern you'd expect at all."

So if Treponema pallidum--the syphilis pathogen--was not a stowaway with Columbus, how did it find its way to England? Some scientists believe that seafaring Vikings, who reached Canada's eastern shore hundreds of years before Columbus, were carriers. Viking merchants were visiting northeastern England around 1300, for instance, just about the time that the Hull skeletons start showing signs of the disease.

Related sites
The History of Syphilis, by the University of Florida's Neil Clancy