Study: Medieval Skeletons Had Syphilis

Recent excavations at a medieval friary in Northern England add weight to the theory that syphilis didn’t come to Europe from the New World.

Skeletons excavated at Hull, dated to between 1300 and 1450, had clear signs of syphilis, said Anthea Boylston, a paleopathologist and leader of an archaeological team from University of Bradford in north England that conducted the dig. Several other skeletons also showed signs of the disease, she said.

Scientists long have argued about whether syphilis was brought to the Americas by European explorers, transmitted the other way around, or arose independently in each region. Skeletons studied earlier in Europe have suggested that the disease was present before Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage.

Europeans seemed to become aware of the disease after 1500, but some researchers believe that syphilis may have been confused with leprosy in earlier times.

Syphilis starts out as sores, develops into a rash, fever and fatigue, and years after initial infection, may develop into severe complications of the heart and brain.

Advanced Cases of Disease

“This discovery changes our views about the history of syphilis,” Boylston said. “There had been a couple of skeletons around the country with signs of syphilis that could have predated Columbus, but the interesting thing about this burial site is there are cases of the disease in many individuals, not just one or two,” she said.

“That makes us think that syphilis was present in medieval England.”

David Evans, who directed excavations at the Augustinian friary, dated the skeletons somewhat later — between 1450 and 1475 — based on stratification.

Four skeletons showed signs of the disease, Evans said in an article in the June edition of British Archaeology.

“The disease, which takes some 20 years before it begins to leave its mark on the bone, was quite advanced at the time of death,” Evans wrote. “These victims had contracted syphilis long before the return of Columbus and his ships from the New World — traditionally regarded as the time when ‘the Great Pox’ was introduced into Europe.”

Similar Afflictions

Donald J. Ortner, curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., said Monday that the discoveries at Hull help to clarify some issues regarding the biological origin of the disease.

“I think a very plausible case can be made for it being syphilis,” said Ortner, who said it also was possible it may have been yaws or bejel, related diseases that are not spread by sexual contact.

Yaws, which is found in tropical and subtropical areas, usually develops in children. Bejel occurs in the Middle East and North Africa. All three diseases are spread by the Treponema microorganism.

The discovery at Hull “makes the whole question about the biological origin of syphilis much more interesting. If we are talking about a single organism causing all three diseases, then we certainly have a very similar kind of disease occurring in Europe long before Columbus,” Ortner said.

The bigger question, he said, is when syphilis emerged as the sexually transmitted form of the disease.