Christopher Columbus did NOT bring syphilis to Europe from America

Christopher Columbus did not bring syphilis to Europe: Sexually transmitted disease was spreading across the continent almost 100 years BEFORE the Italian navigator first set sail for the Americas, study reveals

  • Columbus and his crew have long been blamed for bringing syphilis to Europe  
  • The explorer set sail to discover the New World in August of 1492 
  • But study reveals the bacteria was common in Europe at the start of 15th-century
  • The origin and evolution of the syphilis bacteria Treponema pallidum and the outbreak between 15th and 18th centuries remains unknown 

Christopher Columbus was not responsible for bringing syphilis to Europe, a new study suggests. 

The explorer and his crew have long been blamed for bringing the sexually transmitted disease back to the continent after travelling to the Americas. 

However, analysis of six skeletons in Finland, two in Estonia and one from the Netherlands yielded four positive samples for the syphilis bacteria, Treponema pallidum. 

This shows the sexually transmitted disease was spreading across Europe in the early 1400s.

Given Columbus did not set sail until August 3, 1492, scientists from the University of Zurich say the explorer and his escapades are not the root cause of the syphilis outbreak which lasted for three centuries. 

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Analysis of six skeletons in Finland, two in Estonia and one from the Netherlands yielded four positive samples for the syphilis bacteria, Treponema pallidum. They show that the syphilis bacteria was in Europeans in early 1400s 

Columbus and his crew have long been blamed for bringing the sexually transmitted disease back to the continent after travelling to the Americas. Pictured,  lesions in the skull of a Finnish individual with signs of treponemal infection: damage to the facial area and lesions in the cranium

The study tracked the history of the Treponema pallidum bacteria and its related species, to find out when it was first circulating and to try and track down its origin. 

While they are unable to explain what caused the outbreak that wreaked havoc in Europe from the late 15th to the 18th century, the researchers did learn more detail about the syphilis family tree. 

Lurking inside a skeleton found in the Netherlands was a previously unknown relative of the syphilis virus.  

This lineage evolved in parallel to syphilis and the related disease yaws, but is no longer present as a modern-day disease.

First author Dr Kerttu Majander said: ‘This unforeseen discovery is particularly exciting for us.

‘This lineage is genetically similar to all present treponemal subspecies, but also has unique qualities that differ from them.’

The study also suggests syphilis and related pathogens first evolved around 2,500 years ago.

But for venereal syphilis in particular, the latest common ancestor was around between the 12th and 16th century.

Researchers used state molecular and traditional radiocarbon dating techniques to track the bacterial genomes back to the start of the 15th century. 

Lurking inside a skeleton found in the Netherlands was a previously unknown relative of the syphilis virus. This lineage evolved in parallel to syphilis and yaws but is no longer present as a modern-day disease

Christopher Columbus (pictured) is not responsible for bringing syphilis to Europe, a new study suggests. Study shows the STi was prevalent in Europe in early-15th century, while he did not set sail for the New World until 1492 

Co-author Professor Verena Schunemann, a palaeogenetist at the University of Zurich, said: ‘It seems the first known syphilis breakout cannot be solely attributed to Columbus’ voyages to America.

‘The results indicate the genomes dated back to between the early 15th and 18th century.’

One in five 18th century Londoners caught syphilis 

London in the 18th century was riddled with syphilis, according to a study that found one in five people living in the capital had the sexually transmitted disease. 

Georgian Londoners were also 25 times more likely than those living in rural Cheshire and north-east Wales to contract the disease, researchers found.

A major study by researchers from the University of Cambridge involved painstakingly scouring archives from the period including hospital admissions to calculate the rate of syphilis infection for men and women up to the age of 35.  

One-fifth is a ‘reliable minimum’ estimate for just how prevalent the disease was in the capital, with authors suggesting syphilis was just the tip of the iceberg.  

‘A far greater number would have contracted gonorrhea or chlamydia than contracted syphilis in this period,’ according to the historians behind the study.

In fact it is very likely that the vast majority of people living in the capital contracted an STI of one type or another while they were young, the team confirmed.   

This disspells the long-held theory that the syphilis outbreak was sparked by the returning sailors using Native American Indian women for sex.

Before this study, the first recorded case was among French mercenary troops in 1495, only a handful of years after Columbus returned to Europe after discovering the ‘New World’.  

It then also occurred in Naples, following a French invasion during the Italian War of 1494-98, which is why it is sometimes dubbed the ‘French disease.’

There are other types of T. pallidum, such as yaws, which is transmitted through skin-to-skin or oral contact, but not intercourse. 

Yaws was identified in the remains of one of the individuals. Today, the disease is only found in tropical and subtropical regions.

The chronic infection is rarely passed on through sex. It affects the skin, bone and cartilage and is still found in poor communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Professor Schunemann said: ‘Our data indicates yaws was spread through all of Europe. It was not limited to the tropics, as it is today.’

The findings are today published in the journal Current Biology.    

Syphilis can be fatal if left to run rampant but its severity is often dismissed due to the availability of antibiotics. it is now also spreading at an alarming rate.

Cases in England increased by 20 per cent between 2016 and 2017, and reached the highest number reported since 1949, official data shows.

It is the fastest growing STI in the UK and experts blame the rising popularity of dating apps.

Over the last decades, more than 10 million people around the world have been infected.

In 2018, more than 7,137 cases were diagnosed – up from 2,874 in 2008. Syphilis is spread by unprotected sex. If left untreated it can cause serious health problems.

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