Case Closed? Columbus’ Crew Brought Syphilis to Europe

Charles Q. Choi, MSNBC, December 27, 2011

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but when he returned from ‘cross the seas, did he bring with him a new disease?

New skeletal evidence suggests Columbus and his crew not only introduced the Old World to the New World, but brought back syphilis as well, researchers say.

Syphilis is caused by Treponema pallidum bacteria, and is usually curable nowadays with antibiotics. Untreated, it can damage the heart, brain, eyes and bones; it can also be fatal.

The first known epidemic of syphilis occurred during the Renaissance in 1495. Initially its plague broke out among the army of Charles the VIII after the French king invaded Naples. It then proceeded to devastate Europe, said researcher George Armelagos, a skeletal biologist at Emory University in Atlanta.


Armelagos originally doubted the so-called Columbian theory for syphilis when he first heard about it decades ago. “I laughed at the idea that a small group of sailors brought back this disease that caused this major European epidemic,” he recalled. Critics of the Columbian theory have proposed that syphilis had always bedeviled the Old World but simply had not been set apart from other rotting diseases such as leprosy until 1500 or so.

However, upon further investigation, Armelagos and his colleagues got a shock–all of the available evidence they found supported the Columbian theory, findings they published in 1988. “It was a paradigm shift,” Armelagos says. Then in 2008, genetic analysis by Armelagos and his collaborators of syphilis’s family of bacteria lent further support to the theory.

Still, there have been reports of 50 skeletons from Europe dating back from before Columbus set sail that apparently showed the lesions of chronic syphilis. These seemed to be evidence that syphilis originated in the Old World and that Columbus was not to blame.

Armelagos and his colleagues took a closer look at all the data from these prior reports. They found most of the skeletal material didn’t actually meet at least one of the standard diagnostic criteria for chronic syphilis, such as pitting on the skull, known as caries sicca, and pitting and swelling of the long bones.

“There’s no really good evidence of a syphilis case before 1492 in Europe,” Armelagos told LiveScience.



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  • Urban Teacher

    Yes, that is old news, though it does seem to dispell any lingering doubt.

    Does that mean we’re off the hook for bringing small pox to the New World?

  • June Warren

    This supports the theory that there was little or no contact between the New and Old Worlds prior to Columbus. So the “theories” about Egyptians, Libyans, Hebrews, etc coming to the Americas thousands of years ago are probably untrue.

    The Vikings did come to Canada, but apparently they brought little disease with them and few returned to Europe to spread New World diseases.

  • Antidote

    Oh, yes. Science figured this out a long time ago, but it was and is politically incorrect to mention true facts about the Amerindians which don’t cast them as anything other than noble savages.

    Why do you suppose it became fashionable in Europe in the 17th Century (for the first time in history) for men to wear wigs, and to powder their faces? Could it have been to conceal the loss of hair and the lesions of syphilis? Why do you suppose men needed pewter noses and eye patches? Why did women need giant beehives as well as merkins below?

    Yes, we gave measles, smallpox and booze; we received siff, hanta virus and tobacco.

  • Snowhitey

    These loonies Lefties have such a hard time accepting the truth when it comes to non-whites. It’s like the old blame whitey story that whites gave the Indians smallpox by infecting a blanket. Did the settlers really have that kind of knowledge/information about disease and how did they handle the blankets without getting snallpox themsleves. Never underestimate the hallucinations of a Leftist!

  • Rocky Mountain

    Just recently I was remarking to a friend that some disease had to go the other direction; i.e. from the “New World” back to the “Old World” as we all know that the conventional story is that Europeans committed genocide by bringing their diseases with them almost as if it was a planned act. This news certainly confirms my suspicion.

  • rjp

    I thought the general theory was that Columbus brought syphillis to the New World?

  • Anonymous

    The only fact I know for sure about Smallpox is that Western medicine eradicated it from both hemispheres.

  • Sy

    There are still several ways that a leftist can spin this story:

    ~that Europeans got what they deserved from the “raping” of the virginal aboriginal women.

    ~That aborigines, because they lived closer to a state of nature, had built up immunities to syphilis that the “city slicker” Europeans had not

    ~That Europeans got the disease as a result of some recently discovered voodoo curse placed on them by which Dr.

    ~And so on and so on…

  • cajunrebel87 a Cadian

    Vikings found Canada in 1000 a.d. and Solutreans found it during the Ice age. none ever made it back home.

    Irish monks found the new world during the dark ages and later, as evidenced by the cave writings in Virginia, but they never returned to Europe to tell the tale. Columbus did not discover the new world, he was the one who made it back alive.

  • Salt

    Given Dr. Armelagos’s prior work on antibiotics in Egyptian beer — this is a guy not to be trifled with. If he makes the claim, I can pretty much guarantee he has a stack of evidence to back it up.

    Give this guy a bag of bones, a modern lab, and he will dig the rest of the historical work out to either validate or raise questions about it.

    Of course, its not politically correct to mention such findings, but I doubt he will face any real wrath for making them. The wrath will come for the people who dare to venture into comparative death tolls, or comparative economic losses.

  • medic

    Firstly, T Pallidum is a parasite, not a bacterium. Secondly, it is zoonotic: it originated in animals, particularly the lama.It crossed the human animal barrier, just like HIV, which originated in monkeys. Whether the explorers had sex with animals or women whose men had sex with animals is moot.