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A recent Channel 4 television series, Secrets of the Dead, had one programme entitled “The Syphilis Enigma.” It presented evidence, summarised in book form,1 which challenged the accepted view that venereal syphilis came to Europe with the return of Columbus from his first voyage of discovery of the New World.
This new and challenging case is based on a study of over 240 skeletons exhumed at the site of a medieval friary in Hull. It is claimed that some 60% of the skeletons show leg bone changes compatible with a diagnosis of syphilis. Three skeletons show a variety of bone changes indicative of syphilis. Carbon dating of one of these three skeletons states that it was alive more than 100 years before Columbus's voyage in 1492–3.
History and theories of the treponematoses
A summary of currently held views on the history of treponemal diseases is presented as an essential basis for an appraisal of this new evidence.
Venereal syphilis and a worldwide scatter of diseases resembling it are caused by microscopically identical organisms each precipitating identical antibodies. These organisms have caused clinical conditions which resemble each other but with clinical variables among themselves as well as between each other. Thus, some authorities talk of one disease, treponematosis, and others talk of treponematoses. Against this background, two views about the origin of venereal syphilis in Europe have evolved.
The unitarian theory, championed by Hudson,2 sees treponemal diseases as mostly originating from one form, occurring, firstly, in central Africa. It was and is called yaws. It spread east and north from earliest times. Spread was encouraged over the centuries by slave trading according to Hackett3 and Scott.4 According to the latter, slaves were imported into Egypt as early as 3000 bc. With the centuries yaws was spread to the Arabian peninsula …