Scientists find the earliest case of syphilis

(ORDO NEWS) — In the cave of Lapa do Santo in what is now Brazil, the remains of a four-year-old child suffering from this disease were found.

In the scientific community today there is no consensus on the origin of syphilis. For a long time it was believed that this disease is a kind of revenge of the Indians of the New World on the European conquerors.

According to this hypothesis, the conquistadors contracted it from the natives of America, and the island of Haiti was supposedly the primary source.

The story looked pretty smooth. It is known that many of those who sailed to the New World on the first expeditions, but did not stay there, later joined the army of Charles VIII of Valois and brought syphilis to Italy conquered by the French king. From there, the epidemic spread across Europe.

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Patient with syphilis. Illustration by Albrecht Dürer

In 2008, a number of articles by geneticists came out that confirmed that syphilis, which is rampant in Europe and inevitably penetrated into Asia, is of South American origin: a family relationship was proven between Treponema pallidum ( Treponema pallidum ) and New World treponemas.

Later, the finds made by archaeologists, as well as the discoveries of forensic scientists and even forensic doctors, cast doubt on this hypothesis. In 2015, Austrian researchers discovered the remains of a teenager who lived in the 14th century (that is, before the voyage of Columbus) and suffered from congenital syphilis.

This discovery immediately fueled two hypotheses about the origin of syphilis, which existed before, but were considered not very reliable. Proponents of the first believe that syphilis has existed in Europe since at least Antiquity. Adherents of the second believe that the disease came from Africa.

Brazilian scientists conducted a study of the remains of a four-year-old child who was buried in a cave in Lapa do Santo (eastern part of modern Brazil) no less than 9,400 years ago – this is a conservative estimate that can be increased to ten thousand years.

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Lapa do Santo cave on the map

Lapa do Santo Cave is one of the most important Early Holocene sites in the Americas. To date, 195 graves of very high preservation have been found there. Almost all of them are securely dated. The cave was never robbed, which allowed researchers to study the burial practices of those times.

A four-year-old child was buried lying on his side, but no funeral rites that left traces were performed on him (that is, they did not use pigments, did not burn anything, and did not put any objects in the grave). Initially, this skeleton attracted the attention of researchers because it was too small.

The child died at the age of four (the age was determined by the general development of the skeleton), but his growth corresponded to the norms for one and a half to two years.

At the same time, in the skeletons of other people buried in the cave, scientists did not find any signs that the inhabitants of those places suffered from a lack of food or any important trace elements. The skeleton of the child also did not look like the remains of children who were diagnosed with rickets.

Instead of rickets, researchers found some bony lesions and several dental changes consistent with syphilis. Bone changes are present in his left femur, left ulna, and also in his skull.

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The schematic representation of the skeleton shows the sites of bone damage

Teeth at that age were still milky, but at the time of the child’s death they were in very poor condition – not typical for his fellow tribesmen.

The authors of the work believe that congenital syphilis was also the reason for the small stature of the child: treponematoses can affect the pituitary gland and cause nanism or growth retardation.

According to the researchers, they reliably established that syphilis was present in South America ten thousand years ago. At the same time, they note that this example is the only one in the Lapa do Santo cave. All the rest buried did not suffer from syphilis.

The closest example of finding ancient syphilis is the archaeological site of Santana do Riacho, 60 kilometers from Lapa do Santo. The skeleton of a woman with syphilis found there also belongs to the early Holocene.

That is, there was syphilis, but it was still infrequent. Millennia later, this disease has already spread much more widely: in a cemetery in Virginia (USA), dated 925 AD, most of the skeletons have signs of syphilis. And this brings us back to the question of its origin.

We know perfectly well that Columbus was not the first European to reach the New World. That is, a teenager who lived on the territory of modern Austria in the XIV century, the disease could get not from the south, but from the north – from the Vikings.

And if we recall the travels of Thor Heyerdahl, then the African hypothesis seems quite possible – only on the condition that syphilis also came to the Black Continent from America.


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