December 20, 2011

Syphilis spread from the Americas in the last 500 years

The discovery of the New World by Columbus and the ones that followed him launched an era of exchange between the two hemispheres that saw Old World populations and material culture transported west, and New World culture transported east. The arrival and spread of European diseases among Native Americans is well-documented, but there is at least one disease that spread in the opposite direction: syphilis. Previous research has suggested that syphilitic symptoms could be discerned in pre-Columbian populations of the Old World,

A new comprehensive survey of the evidence, however, suggests that syphilis did come from the Americas due to Columbus' voyage, and that the evidence advanced for a pre-Columbian presence of the disease is not solid.

“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 appraisal was led by two of Armelagos’ former graduate students at Emory: Molly Zuckerman, who is now an assistant professor at Mississippi State University, and Kristin Harper, currently a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University. Additional authors include Emory anthropologist John Kingston and Megan Harper from the University of Missouri. 
“Syphilis has been around for 500 years,” Zuckerman says. “People started debating where it came from shortly afterwards, and they haven’t stopped since. It was one of the first global diseases, and understanding where it came from and how it spread may help us combat diseases today.”

Yrbk Phys Anthropol 54:99–133, 2011.

The origin and antiquity of syphilis revisited: An Appraisal of Old World pre-Columbian evidence for treponemal infection

Kristin N. Harper et al.

For nearly 500 years, scholars have argued about the origin and antiquity of syphilis. Did Columbus bring the disease from the New World to the Old World? Or did syphilis exist in the Old World before 1493? Here, we evaluate all 54 published reports of pre-Columbian, Old World treponemal disease using a standardized, systematic approach. The certainty of diagnosis and dating of each case is considered, and novel information pertinent to the dating of these cases, including radiocarbon dates, is presented. Among the reports, we did not find a single case of Old World treponemal disease that has both a certain diagnosis and a secure pre-Columbian date. We also demonstrate that many of the reports use nonspecific indicators to diagnose treponemal disease, do not provide adequate information about the methods used to date specimens, and do not include high-quality photographs of the lesions of interest. Thus, despite an increasing number of published reports of pre-Columbian treponemal infection, it appears that solid evidence supporting an Old World origin for the disease remains absent.


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