The Origin and Antiquity of Venereal Syphilis

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The origin and antiquity of venereal syphilis in the Old and New World have been the subject of debate since the first reported outbreak of syphilis in AD 1495. The are several proposed hypotheses for the origin of this disease, including the belief that syphilis originated in the Americas and was transported back to Europe by Columbus' crew in AD 1493. A competing hypothesis that has been proposed by experts is based on the existence of misdiagnosed syphilis in Europe before Columbus' expeditions. In addition to these, there are several other positions that have been explored, but none have been irrefutably proven. Definitive osteological evidence of syphilis to support any of these hypotheses is problematic due to the nature of the disease. Syphilis' causative agent is the bacteria Treponema pallidum and other related treponemal diseases include bejel, yaws, and pinta. All of these bacterial diseases, excluding pinta, can similarly impact skeletal tissues. Osteological evidence to support any proposed hypothesis must display recognizable signs of treponemal disease. However, any evidence of syphilis must be differentiated between the other two variants that also leave skeletal lesions. The implications for understanding the origins of syphilis reach further than the field of archeology and could shed light on the evolutionary history and transmission of the disease. To better understand the legitimacy of the abovementioned proposed hypotheses, the body of evidence that supports them must be scrutinized. This project seeks to critically assess the current standings of osteological, molecular, epidemiological, and documentary evidence that is being used to support the hypotheses concerning the origin and antiquity of venereal syphilis.

First Advisor

Saige Kelmelis

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