1) Pre-Columbian hypothesis:
the Old World
This explanation proposes that syphilis was present in Europe before
Columbus' voyage, but was not identified as a separate
disease from leprosy before the 1490s. According to this theory,
populations were small, and treponemal infection was mild and chronic.
Larger population sizes selected for more acute infections, and the
types of treponemes that depended on direct skin contact were
outcompeted by the hardier, sexually transmitted strain. Thus,
the origin of venereal syphilis resulted from social and economic
events, and not directly related to the return of Columbus from the New
World. Proponents of this theory point to the ancient and medieval
sources showing Pre-Columbian treponema
infections in Europe.
2) Columbian hypothesis: Origins
in the New World
One hypothesis argues for a New World origin, and holds that sailors
who accompanied Columbus and other explorers brought the disease back
to Europe in 1493. These researchers believe that syphilis originated
New World due to a mutation in the bacteria that causes yaws
(Rothschild, 2000). Based on a study of 1,000 skeletons from Africa,
the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, Rothschild found no evidence of
pre-Columbian Old World syphilis. According to his theory, Columbus'
crew contracted syphilis in the New World and spread it through
The following syphilis endemic of 1500 suggested that the European
population was previously unexposed to the disease which rapidly spread
once introduced. Furthermore, the Rothschilds found that the earliest
yaws cases in the New World collections were at least 6,000 years old,
while the first syphilis cases were 800-1,600 years old. This suggests
that syphilis may be a New World mutation of yaws, which has a
worldwide distribution. The discovery of treponemal antigens in
the remains of a Pleistocene bear in the Americas, as well as an
abundance of skeletal material with lesions that suggest treponemal
agents, lend strong support for the presence of the disease in the New
3) Unitarian hypothesis
Treponema agent was present in the New World and the Old World at the
time of Columbus' voyage, and has evolved along with human populations.
This theory assumes that the
treponematoses may have come
down from a nonhuman primate ancestor, and the infections have exisited
man and his primate ancestors for millions of years (Cockburn,
1977). According to this theory, each of the above mentioned
trepanematoses are just manifestations of one single disease occuring
with different social and environmental factors.
In the hot, humid climate of Sub-Saharan Africa, treponematosis
originated from nonhuman primates as a childhood disease (yaws)
transmitted by skin-skin contact. The bacteria evolved alongside humans
in migrating hunter-gatherer populations throughout the Paleolithic.
Eventually, groups moved into drier climates, and the ancestral
treponeme common to
apes and man retreated to moister areas of the body (manifested as
endemic syphilis, or bejel).
Populations crossing the Bering Strait into the New
World from Asia
carried the endemic syphilis, and mutations accumulated until the
bacteria evolved into contemporary pinta and bejel. Eventually, the
climatic change in the New World caused a shift back to yaws, and the
crowded, unsanitary conditions in the Americas during the Neolithic
facilitated the spread through increased child-child contact.
Meanwhile, in the Old World in 4000 B.C.,
urbanization improved community hygiene, and sexual contact was the
only way to permit transmission of treponemas, as promiscuity and
prostitution increased the spread of the disease.
NO CLEAR RESOLUTION
Unfortunately, it is difficult to definitively pinpoint the origin of
syphilis, because skeletal evidence must be proven to be both ancient and
syphilitic. However, an
exhaustive review of the documentary and skeletal evidence of
treponematosis by Baker and Armelagos conclude that nonvenereal
treponemal infection is a New World disease that spread to the Old
World and became a venereal disease following European contact.