THE question of whether Christopher Columbus and his crew were responsible for bringing syphilis to Europe from the Americas appears to have been answered by the discovery of a collection of knobbly skeletons in a London cemetery.
A popular theory among experts in tropical diseases is that outbreaks of syphilis in the mid-1490s were a direct result of Columbus and his randy crew returning from their first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492-93.
However, the largest excavation of skeletons undertaken in Britain has unearthed seven that suggest the disease was known in England up to two centuries before that.
Archaeologists believe that rough patches on the skulls and limbs of skeletons found at St Mary Spital in east London exonerate Columbus’s crew.
Samples include a skull of a child of unknown sex who had such bad lesions on its scalp that marks were left on its forehead. The child had received the venereal form of the disease from its mother.
Brian Connell, an osteologist for the Museum of London who has studied the bones, said that he had no doubt that the skeletons were buried before Columbus’s voyage. Radiocarbon dating of the samples is estimated to be 95 per cent accurate.
“We’re confident that Christopher Columbus is simply not a feature of the emergence and timing of the disease in Europe,” he said.
Previous discoveries of apparently syphilitic bones buried in Europe before Columbus’s voyage have been inconclusive, he said.
“Either radiocarbon dating analysis was not sufficiently accurate or the diagnosis [of syphilis] was less clear. But this puts the nail in the coffin of the Columbus theory.”
The seven syphilitic skeletons from St Mary’s Spital, two from 1200-1250 and five from 1250-1400, are not only better preserved than those considered previously, but buried alongside other skeletons and objects such as coins that corroborate radiocarbon dating results.
The burial site received its name from the hospital on the edge of the City of London now known as Spitalfields.
The bones suggest that the victims, probably patients of the hospital, were in considerable pain. The child whose skull has been reconstructed would probably have been blind, bald and beset by toothache.
Its teeth came through at 45 degrees to its jaw, Mr Connell said. “It would have had gross facial disfigurement, which would have been very distressing for the child, who was about 10 years old when it died.
“The skull, which should be smooth, looks like a lunar landscape. It caused a bit of a stir when it was found, because the symptoms are so obvious.”
Don Walker, also a human osteologist at the museum, said that the bone markings suggested that the victims suffered from the venereal form of the disease, which is distinct from the non-sexually transmitted forms such as yaws and endemic treponematosis.
Mr Connell said it was probably a coincidence that the first well-documented outbreak of the disease was after Columbus’s return.
“People were looking for someone to blame. It was called the French pox by the English and the Spanish pox by the Dutch. We all blamed it on everyone else.”
Tahitians thought of it as the British disease. The bones in the graveyard do not suggest a new culprit, but they suggest that it would be unfair to label syphilis the American disease.