Scientists have found that syphilis and other related diseases may have spread in Europe before the return of Christopher Columbus from the Americas, according to a study published on Friday by Swiss scientists.
Until now, it was widely believed that syphilis was brought to Europe by Columbus and his crew when they returned from the Americas in 1493.
Scientists from the University of Zurich discovered syphilis pathogens and other similar bacteria on samples from archaeological human remains at least one of which dates back to before Columbus' time.
The scientists also identified pathogens of yaws, an infection of the skin and bones that is nowadays only prevalent in tropical areas, in DNA samples originating from Finland, Estonia and the Netherlands between the early 15th and 18th centuries.
Scientists also found an unknown bacterium from the same family. This disease evidently developed alongside syphilis and yaws, but it no longer exists today, they found.
Developed 2,500 years ago
The research now sheds a clearer light on the history of Treponema pallidum: According to the researchers, there was a large variety of subspecies in Europe as early as the end of the 15th century, which the classic Columbus hypothesis could not explain.
The scientists suspect the common predecessor of these pathogens developed at least 2,500 years ago and could also have originated in Europe.
The origin of syphilis, which only affects humans and hit Europe especially hard between the late 15th century and the 18th century, has not been cleared up to date.