Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK

Did Christopher Columbus Bring Syphilis To Europe? Bones rewrite syphilis history.

human remains
Tests on human bones supports the new theory

The remains of a medieval woman found in Essex could change medical history by disproving the theory that Christopher Columbus brought syphilis to Europe.

The origins of the disease in Europe has been the cause of debate for centuries.

Experts estimate the bones, which show signs of syphilis, are aged between 1296 and 1445.

That suggests syphilis was already present in England before Columbus discovered the New World in 1492.

The sexually-transmitted disease, which can be treated with modern medicines, often led to dementia and death in earlier times.

Firmer proof

Dr Simon Mays, who led the team from the English Heritage's Centre for Archaeology, said: "This is very important discovery.

"This puts the theory that syphilis was not brought to Europe by Columbus on a much firmer footing."

Christopher Columbus
Columbus is blamed for syphilis in Europe

Documentary evidence had suggested that epidemics, which raged through Europe in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, could be connected with the return of Columbus from America.

Skeletons found in the United States, which showed the disease present before 1492, seemed to support this theory.

Analysing bones

The skeleton was found in a churchyard in Rivenhall, near Chelmsford.

Tests on the Essex bones suggest the woman was aged somewhere between 25 and 50 years old.

The roughness of the bones and the pitted surface indicate she had syphilis.

Archaeologists from English Heritage believe this was the venereal form of the disease, caught through sexual intercourse.

Work including DNA tests will now continue on this and related specimens.

Dr Mays said he wants to find more evidence to convince doubters once and for all that syphilis was here before Columbus.

"Then the big question will be to find out exactly where this disease came from, if not from America," he added.



Essex girl claims an historic first: syphilis

BY HELEN STUDD, The London Times

IT was Voltaire who gave weight to the belief that not everything the conquistadores brought from the Americas was life-enhancing when he wrote: “The first fruit the Spaniards brought from the New World was syphilis.”
But now the skeleton of an early Essex girl has cast doubt on the traditional origins of syphilis in this country.

Female bones dug up in a churchyard in Rivenhall, near Witham, are thought to disprove the long-standing belief that Christopher Columbus was responsible for importing the disease into Europe in the late 15th century.

English Heritage has unearthed a skeleton of a woman, aged between 25 and 50, who suffered from the venereal disease at least 50 years before Columbus discovered America in 1492.

Scientists are 95 per cent certain that the woman, who is believed to have contracted the disease up to a decade before her death, lived in the medieval settlement between 1290 and 1445.

Historians have previously assumed that the Spanish adventurer and his crew imported the disease into Europe from the New World after contracting it during sexual trysts with the natives.

This is the first time that any example of the sexually transmitted disease has been found in Europe which can be dated prior to Columbus’s time.

Simon Mays, a researcher from English Heritage who made the discovery with Gillian Crane-Kramer, an American PhD student, said he was confident it was an accurate diagnosis. “People have always attacked finds like this on the grounds that the diagnosis or the dating was problematic. The importance of this find is that it is well dated by scientific methods and it’s a firm diagnosis,” he said.

“While it is difficult to distinguish endemic syphilis from venereal syphilis, we are almost certain that in this case it is the latter.

“It entirely undermines the theory that Columbus brought the disease back from the New World.”

The skeleton was exhumed in the 1970s but had remained locked away until last year. Miss Crane-Kramer rediscovered the bones by chance while conducting research for her PhD project and sent them to a laboratory in Toronto, Canada, to be radio-carbon dated

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