Archaeological Dig Finds Evidence That Suggests Christopher Columbus Wasn't to Blame For Syphilis in Europe After All

Christopher Columbus' arrival to the Americas may not be to blame for the rise of syphilis in Europe after all. The explorer has long been fingered for bringing the disease to Europe following his travels to the New World. However, an archeological dig may have found evidence proving syphilis was already present in Europe long before Columbus ever set sail.

Published in the journal Current Biology, researchers found traces of Treponemal DNA—a bacteria that causes syphilis—in human remains excavated from Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands.

Using a molecular clock technique that helps scientists understand and evaluate changes in genes over time, and by calculating the age of the wood coffins the remains were found in, researchers were able to estimate the ages of the Treponemal strains, dating the remains back to the early to mid-1400s.

The researchers, comprised of archaeogenetics from Germany's Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and the University of Zurich in Switzerland, also discovered bacterial strains related to Yaws disease, another skin-to-skin transmitted condition which affects people specifically living in tropical and subtropical areas, as well as other yet-to-be-identified bacterial strains.

The syphilis outbreak in Europe killed didn't begin until 1495 and was long thought to have arrived following Columbus' 1493 return from America. The disease ravaged the country for the course of two centuries and was responsible for the death of nearly five million people.

Christopher Columbus Not Responsible For Syphilis
A model of a billboard from the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) which ran in Los Angeles but has been rejected to be displayed in many other cities is seen at the AHF office in Hollywood, California on May 18, 2018. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

With the new findings, scientists now believe the predecessor of today's version of syphilis may have been a home-grown ailment in Europe that evolved between the 12th and 16th centuries.

"It seems that the first known syphilis breakout cannot be solely attributed to Columbus' voyages to America," study author Verena Schünemann, a professor of paleogenetics at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, said in a statement released on September 9.

While there are some questions about the validity of the method the researchers used to date the bacteria strains discovered, the paper's co-author Johannes Krause, an archaeogeneticist and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, told Science Magazine more evaluations of skeletal material from DNA belonging to people from the Old World and the New World would be needed to determine when exactly the bacteria strains arrived in Europe.

"It's not yet the final nail in the coffin," he said.

Syphilis—a sexually transmitted disease that can cause genital sores and, in worst cases, severe medical problems affecting the heart, brain and other vital organs if untreated—is spread by direct contact with syphilis sore during vaginal, anal, or oral sex. A World Health Report estimated more than 6 million cases of syphilis were affecting people between the ages of 15 and 49 across the globe in 2018. That same year, a separate study from the Centers for Disease Control determined that the disease was on the rise in the U.S. and that 115,000 cases of syphilis had emerged between 2017 and 2018 in the country.