Pre-Columbian syphilis in Europe

There’s an article out in Current Biology suggesting that syphilis may already have existed in Europe before 1492 – mentioned in Science.

They’re almost certainly wrong. Can you see why?





This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

57 Responses to Pre-Columbian syphilis in Europe

  1. Anonymous says:

    Syphilis is descended from yaws, but is there any reason to believe that it descended from New World yaws rather than Old World yaws? Either way, the Age of Exploration could have brought it to Europe. I think you claimed that it was genetically closer to New World samples, but I could not find that in the literature. It seems like it should be easy to distinguish, but I found papers saying that it was difficult.

    Either way it was a skin disease transmitted among people who didn’t wear a lot of clothes. When it moved to Europe, it had to find other ways of transmitting. How long would it take to adapt? Could it have survived for 50 years by skin contact before becoming epidemic? Isn’t this a normal pattern, that finding a new niche takes time?

    Of course, the temporal coincidence is striking.

  2. VojvodaSindjelic says:

    Since it ought to have existed in Asia, ME and/or Africa by then as well, which doesn’t seem to be the case.

  3. JayMan says:

    Well, syphilis was known to have existed in the Americas before then, and not known in the Old World before that time, so it would seem that this is not possible. Are we to think that the Vikings brought it back?

  4. pyrrhus says:

    If that were true, highly unlikely, then wouldn’t there be DNA changes to the European version that didn’t exist in the Americas version?

  5. V says:

    So presumably if syphilis were present in Europe, then it would have caused an epidemic, or resistance to it would have been widespread enough that it wouldn’t have caused an epidemic so soon after Columbus’s return.

    That said, looking at Figure 3 and Table 3 makes this pretty laughable. The obvious answer is “these are all post-Columbus, actually.” Like, all they have are measurements whose expected time is after Columbus, but which are noisy enough that the measurement can’t tell you they definitely happened after Columbus.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      yep. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, Everything points to syphilis arriving to Europe post Columbus except this data which has enough variation to make these dates post Columbus as well.

    • David Chamberlin says:

      Commercial history is what sells. It is full of cool stuff like big battles, colorful kings, and glorious empires. Meanwhile the real thing is lost and distorted. If we could go back in time a great deal more importance would be placed on ships pulling into ports with new diseases transported from far away. We can gain a better perspective thanks to our latest import, Covid.

  6. catte says:

    What’s more, the dating range given to two strains is bounded on the lower end by ages in the early to mid-1400s—potentially the first DNA evidence that syphilis existed in Europe prior to Columbus’s contact with the Americas, the team reports today in Current Biology.

    Although the radiocarbon dates are inherently uncertain and are bounded at the upper end by dates into the early 1600s, the diversity of strains around the time of Columbus’s crossing offers additional evidence that the pathogen had already made a home in Europe. Diversity takes time to evolve, Krause says: “Either Columbus brought a whole bouquet of strains, or this diversity was present there before.”

    So the error bars span over a century and a half.

    Diversity of strains: it can happen quickly in a population with no immunity.

    • swampr says:

      Also several strains could have been brought over initially, before the disease had saturated Europe. There might have been more than one strainin Hispaniola and within a few years expeditions had landed everywhere from Brazil to the Bahamas. So maybe then you would expect to see several deeply diverged lineages with a star pattern around 1500.

    • Regret says:

      Wouldn’t discount bringing back a whole bouquet either.

    • swampr says:

      Also more than one strain may have been brought over from Hispaniola. The initial voyage or just before the disease saturated Europe. Sailors visited everywhere from Brazil to Bahamas within a decade of 1492. Then you would expect to see a few deeply diverged strains with a star pattern around 1500.

  7. Gord Marsden says:

    vikings in around 1000, though the word is fighting rather than loving . Also arent there possible records of Basque and Bristol fisherman off newfoundland prior to columbus. and trying to remember where I read it , columbus may have had a map from said fisherman .

    • JMcG says:

      I think that claim was mentioned in a book with the title Cod, written by Mark Kurlanski around twenty years ago. I’m no scholar of the period, but I’ve never seen it mentioned anywhere else. Interestingly, the Grand Banks are only 1200 miles from the westernmost of the Azores.

  8. gabriel alberton says:

    “They’re almost certainly wrong. Can you see why?”
    What’s more, the dating range given to two strains is bounded on the lower end by ages in the early to mid-1400s—potentially the first DNA evidence that syphilis existed in Europe prior to Columbus’s contact with the Americas, the team reports today in Current Biology.
    Although the radiocarbon dates are inherently uncertain and are bounded at the upper end by dates into the early 1600s

    They want it to be true.

  9. Ziel says:

    I would say because after 1492 “The Pox” was commonly referred to in literature but prior to 1492 it was never mentioned.

  10. Henry Scrope says:

    Saw this documentary I think in the 80s. Skeletons of 14th century monks in Hull with signs of syphilis, has it been debunked?

    • gcochran9 says:

      Yes, it has. Interesting case. The skeletons were of people that eaten a lot of fish, full of carbon that upwelled after a long time in the deep sea. Not much C-14 – made them look older than they were.

  11. I have become useless on such speculations. If I see a research finding that will be politically popular, I assume it is false. I’m nearly always right these days, but it doesn’t give us much basis for the advancement of knowledge, does it?

    • Toddy Cat says:

      This is about where I’m at right now – I just automatically assume that anything that will make the Faculty Lounge happy is false. This seems to work about 80-85% of the time, so while its most certainly not foolproof, its a useful hueristic. When blacks or Indians are involved, I’d guess that accuracy rises to near 95%.

  12. Smithie says:

    I’ve always wondered where syphilis came from. I mean, I always thought it came to Europe from the Americas, but how did it become prevalent in the Americas?

    Could some precursor have existed among the isolated band of migrants who anciently crossed Beringia? (Don’t Eskimos have high rates of STDs?) Or does it have something to do with urbanization in Mesoamerica? Or did it come from some extinct animal? (Revenge of the Giant Sloth!)

    I also wonder if homosexuals made it into an STD, after it started as a gut infection, and if they were necessary for it to make the leap.

    • Hugh Mann says:

      “Don’t Eskimos have high rates of STDs?”

      Given their relatively unusual sex culture, I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Duncan Pryde’s book Nunaga gives a fair description. But whether they had high rates prior to Western contact I don’t know.

  13. moscanarius says:

    I’ll try: if it came from Europe, it would likely be very bad for the Indians, and we would hear about the syphilis epidemic killing scores of New World natives like smallpox and measles?

  14. dearieme says:

    Talking of Indians (ahem!) I suppose the USA may have a Tamil President before India has a Tamil Prime Minister. The statistics of small groups, eh?

  15. Ilya says:

    Sorry, being off-topic. Some companies are in the process of recruiting volunteers for COVID-19 vaccine trials.

    I have a better idea. The US has more than 2 million strong felon population. A portion of them are, literally, pseudo-human homicidal maniacs (like “St” George Floyd, PBH). Why not pick a 100K of the most evil murderous felons to do a challenge trial for the COVID-19 vaccine? Why should I, a tax-paying good citizen engineer, volunteer for something like this and risk MY OWN life/health? I’d really like to take some inspiration from the Chinese here.

  16. dave chamberlin says:

    off topic, sorry.

    I wish for another Cochran book. He is such a clear writer on complex subjects. He avoids the common afflictions of other non fiction writers. Salesmanship rather than scholarship, careful avoidance of unproven speculation, and a layering of actual evidence to back up his points.

    The big and important subject that people are consistently full of shit on and Cochran is not is shifted bell shape curves of human intelligence between populations. We have the liberals who stupidly insist it doesn’t exist and we have the dumb racists who absurdly insist it applies to everyone equally. I don’t know that it needs to be a book really, maybe just a long paper. I would like the details flushed out into a book but maybe that is not necessary. E books should predominate in non fiction because links can unfold in greater detail points the reader may want to know more about.

    People can’t wrap their minds around the huge consequences of a population like Qatar that has 1 out of 700 citizens with an IQ other 130 and England that has 1 out of 50 people in that range. a modern society without competent engineers, technicians, ect ect is screwed. Simple to state, simple to prove, rarely understood. I guess exasperation comes with the territory of being born lucky enough to be in that not so rare territory, assuming of course you don’t live in Qatar.

    • mitchellporter says:

      Qatar is a very weird choice of comparison. The population is 1/30th of the UK’s, 1/200th if you only count citizens. It’s one of the richest countries in the world per capita, home of Al Jazeera and a CENTCOM base. UK citizens are far more diverse than Qatari citizens The differences in population size and composition, resource base, and geopolitical context would seem to completely obscure any attempt to make IQ a factor in comparing the two countries.

    • j says:

      I cannot wrap my mind around the supposedly average low IQ of the Qatari Arabs. This small fishing village had established a vast trading network, from Zanzibar to Canton and Indonesia, much before the Portuguese and Dutch. When oil wealth came, they built modern, stable, efficient cities. Venezuela, Nigeria, etc. have oil wealth and look what a mess they are.

    • Gilbert G says:

      What is worse is if a big country cannot replace itself and constantly siphons off all the 110 + IQ from developing countries that are trying to work out how to run a modern country with 1/50 at that level. Which I believe can be done as they only have to manage not innovate. In the opposite of the joke. It lowers the potential of both countries.

  17. Philip Neal says:

    I have read that syphilis attenuated in the course of the sixteenth century in Europe. Is this true, and is it evidence of an organism adapting to a new host population? (Yes, I know Greg has shown that this does not always happen, but it sometimes does.)

  18. Zimriel says:

    I would say that the genetic diversity is greatest in ports, except in the tropics. That implies that the reservoir is in the tropics and brought to the ports. The real question remains which tropic – New World / Old World – not whether it belongs to Old Prussia.
    Just before Columbus was fumbling around the Caribbean, the Portuguese were exploring west Africa – and there has long been a suspicion that the Portuguese had got to Venezuela and Brasil, also, before 1492. The first transAtlantic maps are famously too good for South America for their time.

  19. dearieme says:

    “there has long been a suspicion that the Portuguese had got to Venezuela and Brasil, also, before 1492.” That sounds interesting – anything you can refer me to?

    • gcochran9 says:

      The Portuguese route to India followed the trade winds and came pretty close to Brazil. That said, I doubt that they beat Columbus: but they may have discovered Brazil before Cabral’s official discovery. Which may have influenced the demarcation line in the final Treaty of Tordesillas – which was moved 270 leagues west & thus included eastern Brazil for Portugal.

    • Zimriel says:

      Our host has related a fair consensus of the question. That is about where I would start.
      My late grandfather lived in Lisboa for some time and admittedly imbibed some of the local nationalism, which made a big to-do about Prince Henry later called “the Navigator” (d. AD 1460) who of course never sent his emissaries that far west. Cortesão claimed a map for AD 1424, but I don’t accept this – it is too early.
      I am more looking at the generation after Henry’s death AD 1460-90. Here we have Alfonso V’s 1475 patent to Ferdinand Teles on the “Seven Cities”, and João II’s 1486 patent to Ferdinand van Olm. That War of the Castilian Succession was a major interruption in Iberian affairs late 1470s; for awhile the question was open whether there should even be such a state as “Portugal” or, for that matter, as “Spain”. Wars like this can mess up record-keeping.
      The evidence that (what we now call) Portugal suspected some intermediate landmasses which were not Japan (Spain thought they were Japan iirc) is, I admit, circumstantial. So I leave it at “suspicion”.

      • dearieme says:

        Thanks. I’ve always been interested in the Portuguese explorers; they got pretty good coverage in our history lessons at school.

        Note to the sceptical: there was an era when the business of schools was reckoned to be education. Hard to believe, I know.

        • Smithie says:

          I think the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed a lot of the details of the explorations. Quite a shame. It is remarkable that the largest city in Africa, Lagos, seems to be named after a small seaside Portuguese village, where Prince Henry made his plans.

          • Smithie says:

            Or perhaps it was the 1531 Earthquake?

          • j says:

            ‘Lagos’ means ‘lakes’ in Portuguese and Spanish and refers to large coastal lagoon on which the place is built.

            • Smithie says:

              Thanks, j. I didn’t understand the connection to local geography. I was thinking more along the patterns of American settlers, naming places after their hometowns. Not that it would have been a salutary place for Europeans to take up residence.

              I wonder how many people in Nigeria understand the significance. Maybe, it is not a sensitive topic because it is not linked to the UK, and so it is disconnected from recent memories.

              • dearieme says:

                I remember reading about an American tourist in Britain realising with a start that Dartmouth was a town at the mouth of the River Dart.

  20. David says:

    All right, not really sure about this analysis, but I thought I give the question a shot.
    Any feedback is welcome, as I might perhaps misunderstand the methodology and methods involved.

    Well, if I understand this paper correctly, the best argument for a Precolumbian-origin is in table 3, where they show all the samples and then derive a Posterior Probability value for it.

    Only two samples have a non-zero value for that, SJ219 and CHS119.
    CHS119 has a posterior proability of 0.005. Who cares about half a percent. Not worth looking into.

    SJ219 is the sample from the St. Jacob’s cemetery in Tartu and they seem to come up with a posterior probability of 0.278, which is indeed a big number.

    However in that table, they use the Radiocarbon date range of 1434 to 1635.
    Three measurements were done for SJ219. Two radiocarbon dating ones, one from AMS putting it between 1434 and 1446, one from Zürich putting it between 1429 and 1476.
    When they analyzed the coffin however, to exclude the dieatary reservor effect, they come up with a range from 1463 to 1635.
    They use this information to set 1635 as the upper bound for the Beast 2 analysis. (I’m not sure what that is and whether it is identical to the prior probility estimates in table 3).
    They also use this as the upper bound for the range in the table 3.

    When I try to calculate the probabilities with those values by just doing:
    1635-1434 = 201 year range, 1434-1493=59 years pre-Columbus
    59/201 = 0.2935, close to what they get.

    When I use the 95% interval numbers:
    1632.46 – 1440.72=192.74 year range
    1440.72-1493= 52.28 years pre-Columbus
    192.74/52.28 = 0.271
    Even closer to what they cite as the posterior proability of 0.278.

    I think they used the latter calculation, but added some after-comma digits to 1493, since we know that Columbus returned March 15th.

    So my naive calculation seems to get to that number as well.
    However, for a calculation like that, I think it should be assumed that the median is the peak of a normal distribution. And I just treated every year as equally likely, not taking into acount that the Columbus-date range has much less probability mass than the area around the median of 1535.41.

    Also the given range is simply wrong. Because we’re implicitly allowing for the possibility that the corpse is older than its coffin, which doesn’t make sense.
    They should have used the dating from the coffin as a lower bound as well, which completely discards the AMS measurements.
    So it should be 1493-1463 = 30 years of pre-columbian and 1635-1463 = 172 years total range.
    So that gives us…. 172/30 = 0.174 posterior probability.

    So…. the numbers are wrong and the pre-Columbian probability is much slimmer than they stated.
    Also this “sciencemag”-publication is overhyping it and possibly are misrepresenting the scientist’s involved.

    “Molly Zuckerman, a bioarchaeologist at Mississippi State University who studies ancient Treponemal disease, praises the researchers’ feat of extracting Treponemal DNA, but notes that the sample date ranges are wide and can’t fully disprove the Columbus hypothesis. “This paper does not provide that kind of golden prize of evidence of syphilis in the pre-Columbian period in the Old World.” ”

    Like…. did Molly Zuckerman really mean to note that this “can’t fully disprove” the Columbus hypothesis? Because that’s not quite what the quote says.

  21. alex2 says:

    Off-topic, but would love to hear (perhaps a new podcast) on your take on the vaccine development race:

    It seems like China is taking a more conservative approach which could be paying off? I don’t know enough about the technical details though.

  22. God of Thunder says:

    Hi — big fan of the posts, big fan too of the intelligent posts in the Comments section.

    However, our host posts so seldomly that I want to ask: what other websites do readers here visit? Any recommendations? Thanks

    • ghazisiz says:

      Steve Sailer just posted something about research that looked at Viking-era DNA in Northwestern Europe. Sailer’s at He’s a very smart guy, but I would still look here for the definitive judgement on that research.

  23. Comment Again? says:

    The sexual life of sailors has been well observed. Given that Syphilis is known to increase sex drive, it does not seem unlikely to me that several strains could have been brought back very early. This sentence strikes me as wrong:

    Krause says: “Either Columbus brought a whole bouquet of strains, or this diversity was present there before.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s