Origin Theories of Syphilis

Theodor de Bry, 1528-1598, engraver, Columbus, as he first arrives in India, is received by the inhabitants and honored with the bestowing of many gifts, 1594, Theodor de Bry's America, | Courtesy of Special Collections, University of Houston Libraries

The first meeting of Columbus and his Spanish explorers with the natives of the Caribbean was one to be remembered. Posterity has pictured this scene as one of happy explorers sharing food with the natives; but the truth of that first encounter, and its aftermath for the natives, was far from happy. Through the exchange, the natives received a number of diseases for which they had no immunities; and one of the largest demographic disasters the world has ever seen was the result. But the disease syphilis was also exchanged, between the New World and the Old World. The nature of this exchange of syphilis, though, is full of debate and speculation concerning its origins.

The Indians astonished at the eclipse of the moon foretold by Columbus, illustration from ‘A New Universal Collection of Authentic and Entertaining Voyages and Travels’ by Edward George Cavendish,1770 (engraving) | Courtesy of The Bridgeman Art Library

Syphilis was one of the most notable examples of New World diseases that traveled to the Old World in what historians now call the Columbian Exchange. There are two different theories for how syphilis was spread. The Columbian hypothesis claims that syphilis was spread by Columbus and his crew on their voyage back to the Old World. Once they contracted it from natives in the Americas, the crew then went back to the Old World. The evidence that supports this hypothesis is the assumption that Columbus’s crew members, once returned back to Spain, joined Spain’s war effort in Naples, exposing the disease to local prostitutes. Once exposed to syphilis, the disease was spread quite easily from the prostitutes to other soldiers and locals, thus increasing the spread of syphilis in the Old World. This explanation for the spread of syphilis is possible because some of Columbus’s crew did in fact join the war effort against Naples and most likely they did mingle with the locals there causing the spread of syphilis.1

The other theory, the Pre-Columbian hypothesis, was that syphilis had always been an Old World disease, but its spread was only exacerbated through the interaction of the natives and Europeans during the Columbian Exchange. This second theory is plausible since there is evidence of pre-Columbian Old World skeletons that show scars similar to syphilis scars. What this means is, since the skeletons from the Old World have scars and written accounts of symptoms similar to syphilis that pre-date the first exchange between Columbus and the Americas, syphilis could have possibly been an Old World disease. Now this theory of syphilis’ origin is a matter of syphilis being yet another disease that was spread from the explorers. Both of these hypotheses are plausible.2

Although these two theories for the origin of syphilis have been debated for decades, a less know third theory has emerged. This third theory suggests that syphilis was both an Old World and a New World disease. Syphilis is thought to “evolved simultaneously with human.”3 In other words, when the respectively different populations of humans evolved, the disease known as syphilis grew with the population in both hemispheres. This theory, though, is mostly unknown because of the two older and more established theories, which have dominated the discussions on syphilis’ origins. This third theory puts an interesting twist on this long debate.4

Through the exchange of syphilis, the lives of natives and explorers were changed in a drastic way. The picture of happy natives and explorers sharing food is one everyone has seen but the different narrative of the debate of syphilis’ origins is one many have not seen. The three theories of syphilis are all very real and possible, which is why the debate of syphilis is such a topic that can cause arguments. The debate over syphilis’ origins is one that will most likely be researched and hypothesized over for many years to come.

 

 

  1. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 2 (2010): 166-167.
  2. Nathan Nunn and Nancy Qian, “The Columbian Exchange: A History of Disease, Food, and Ideas,” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 2 (2010): 167.
  3. Brenda J. Baker et al., “The Origin and Antiquity of Syphilis: Paleopathological Diagnosis and Interpretation and Comments and Reply,” Current Anthropology 29, no. 5 (1988): 703–706.
  4. Brenda J. Baker et al., “The Origin and Antiquity of Syphilis: Paleopathological Diagnosis and Interpretation and Comments and Reply,” Current Anthropology 29, no. 5 (1988): 704.

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52 Responses

  1. I had always assumed that the first theory was fact, but these other two theories make sense. The scars on pre-Columbian Old-World skeletons that appeared similar to syphilis scars would even seem to disprove the first theory. The third theory is quite an interesting one, suggesting that syphilis was a disease carried by both Worlds as time had passed and the Columbian Exchange only exacerbated its spread. This suggests that syphilis has existed when humans made their way to the Americas thousands of years ago via the Bering Strait. This would make syphilis one of the oldest diseases to date, and I think humanity would have noticed it by the time of the Columbian exchange if the third theory is correct.

  2. This article is great at explaining the many theories on the beginning and spread of Syphilis. It is mind-boggling that we know so little about our ancestors and their past, and that we have to look as closely as the marks on their long passed bodies to find answers. The fact of the matter is that there are probably a lot of things that history books have taught us that either never happened or happened very differently. The spreading of syphilis, if spread like theories suggests, must have been really scary to witness and go through, so this article does great at shedding some light on that.

  3. The origins as well as the stigmas of the disease had never really been of focus when thinking about the disease syphilis. The factors and reasoning from the article make a lot of sense, but I wonder if there were also factors of environment that played a role in the disease and its outbreak. I hadn’t known that three different origin stories existed for this one disease. It is expected though seeing how far syphilis dates back in our history. I enjoyed the integration of history and medicine in this article.

  4. I found this article to be really interesting. The origins of syphilis have always been said to have started in the Americas. However, the idea that they could have started in the Old World is never really analyzed. This article presents the idea that maybe, just maybe, all the diseases transmitted, including syphilis, were brought to the Americas by the Spanish.
    This article was well written, however, it could have explained the number of deaths the disease caused more in-depth.

  5. Crazy to read on how we exactly do not know the origins of a deadly disease that was somewhat recent in relation to the human race. Also, it is a recurring trend on how the diseases would travel fast around everywhere. If people would have only known to take simple measures to stop the spread of this disease, who knows how many lives could have been saved.

  6. I really thought that it was going to be a simple story, but I have to admit that I did enjoy this article a lot more than I originally thought. It is articles like these that make me want to study immunology, it is kind of like an interesting and mysterious puzzle that we are still trying to figure out. I find it interesting that there are three different theories as to the origins, it is even more compelling when you take into account that all of them seem plausible. I guess it is just a mystery that we have yet to find out.

  7. Well written article! Syphilis is something I have read and learned about, but I have never fully understood the origins of this disease or why it had occurred. After reading this article, I feel better to know that there are many theories to the origins of this disease but that also worries me. I agree with a previous comment written by Hali Garcia when they state that the disease could have been brought over by Europeans and then reacted differently within the New World environment. Very interesting article!

  8. This is a very interesting article. Syphilis has always been a mystery to me and this article makes me think even more. All three theories are quite possible because it could very well have already been present for both sides. I can understand how it can be viewed that the Europeans brought the disease with them because of the results in the New World and vice versa. But I also wonder if the new environment could have also played a factor.

  9. Nice article. The origins of this disease will always remain a mystery. I had always thought that the natives gave it to the first explorers from Europe, but after reading this article I now know that there is more than one other explanation. It may have always existed in Europe, but may have always been a disease that was just exacerbated by European contact with Native Americans. Still it would be interesting to know for sure.

  10. Europeans brought many things to the New World and the biggest one of them all was disease. It is interesting that a disease dates so far back. I wonder why diseases were transmitted to the Native Americans from the Europeans and not the other way around. Perhaps it was because Native Americans did not live in heavy populated cities that promoted the growth of bacteria and thus disease.

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