New research seriously questions the idea that Columbus brought syphilis to the Americas

New research seriously questions the idea that Columbus brought syphilis to the Americas

You've probably heard it before: the claim that Columbus brought many diseases with him when he discovered America, including syphilis. But it seems that we can now imagine the latter within the realm of myth; New research shows that syphilis-like diseases existed in the Americas long before Columbus set foot there.

Scientists agree: the idea that Columbus introduced syphilis to North and South America is still a little unlikely. Researcher Verena Schoonmann contributed to the study. He explains: “Although the precise origin of syphilis is still unknown, we can say with certainty that American residents have been suffering from treponematosis for centuries.” Treponematosis is a collective name for several closely related conditions: phrombozia, syphilis, Bejal (also known as endemic syphilis), and pinta. All these conditions are caused by bacteria of the genus Treponema. The study is published in the journal Nature.

Ancient skeletons
Scientists eagerly used four ancient skeletons for research. The skeletons from Brazil are now 2,000 years old. By carefully extracting the DNA from the bones and then analyzing it, scientists were able to figure out how these people died. What does it look like? Lab technicians found traces of bacteria Treponema pallidum endemic, a variant causing Bejal. Bejal is similar to syphilis, in that Bejal is transmitted mainly through skin-to-skin contact. This is an important detail because syphilis is mainly transmitted sexually. Fellow scientist Gertu Majander says: “The fact that the results show that this is a skin-transmitted variant, not sexual, still raises the question of where syphilis comes from. However, we found only traces of Bejal, undermining the theory that Columbus introduced syphilis.

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Family matters
Based on their study, scientists think they can tell more about accurate family history Treponema pale: Bacterial species with disease-causing subspecies such as Syphilis, Bejal, and Frambosia. These subspecies may have arisen through horizontal gene transfer or recombination. Bacteria exchange different genes with each other. By comparing ancient DNA from Brazil with modern bacterial DNA, the researchers discovered that this process repeated itself. Researcher Marta Pla-Díaz has contributed to the study of DNA and can tell more about it. “We cannot determine exactly when these rearrangements took place,” he says. “For all we know, this process (horizontal gene transfer, ed.) may be responsible for many of the different types of treponemal infections we see today.” Analyzes show that this heterogeneity exists Treponema pale Must have appeared somewhere between 14,000 and 2,550 years ago. This means that the pathogens that can be classified as belonging to this bacterial genus are significantly older than previously thought.

Back to Europe
The research is important because there is still fierce scientific debate about the medical effects of Christopher Columbus' voyage of discovery. It is not only about the medical consequences it had for the New World, but also the possible medical consequences for the Old World. Another important question that medical historians try to answer relates to Columbus' return to Europe; At the end of the 15th century, there was a sudden outbreak of syphilis in several port cities, and the question is whether Columbus and his crew were responsible. The researchers think that's unlikely, partly based on their new study. For example, they point out that there is a lot of evidence that treponematoes were already widespread in Europe. Also, no sexually transmitted syphilis has been detected in South America, Schuenman emphasizes. “This undercuts the theory that Columbus introduced this form to Europe.” Where does syphilis come from? That's one question Schoonman hopes can be answered soon.

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