Indians, New + Old World Diseases

Cecil gave the ‘pro’ argument for syphilis
being introduced to the old world from the
new. Certainly popular culture has given
this attribution also (e.g., Voltaire’s
Candide, in which Dr. Pangloss’s syphilis
is traced back to Columbus).

For the ‘con’ argument, science cannot
discern any organic difference between the
spirochete that causes syphilis and that
which causes yaws. Yaws is well known to
have existed long before Columbus.

Yaws is a non-existent or nearly non-existent
disease these days. It is marked by skin
sores and lesions, and is spread by contact
presumably between sores and cuts, abrasions,
etc… The development of woolens and
textiles probably had an enormous impact
(downwards) on the incidence of this disease
in Europe soon after the millenium. It may
(or may not) be the case that the disease
simply shifted its primary transmission mode
about the time of Columbus.

Alas, we will probably never know. Still,
if the genome for syphilis and yaws (if the
spirochete or its bits can be obtained from
european sources prior to 1493), and they
in fact turn out to be identical or nearly
so, it would provide strong evidence against
syphilis being solely a new world disease
prior to 1492.


You’re in trouble now! Jill’s gonna kick your butt.

You’re supposed to post the link to the column in question.

[[You’re in trouble now! Jill’s gonna kick your butt.
You’re supposed to post the link to the column in question. ]]

Thank you, Man, now I don’t have to, but I suppose I’m supposed to kiss you instead? At first I thought you meant I should kick his butt for the yaws/syphilis theory, but it’s basically right, though I’m still researching where yaws came from.

Actually, Cecil didn’t give the last word on the origin of syphilis. Here’s what he said:
“However edenic the New World may have been, it may have harbored one bug that did kill a lot of Europeans: syphilis. The question remains controversial. The first known cases of syphilis showed up in Italy in 1494, and we know what happened in 1492. Many believe the Spanish contracted syphilis in Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and gave it to the Italians and French at the siege of Naples. Bone damage characteristic of syphilis found at precolumbian New World archaeological sites supports this view. But others say syphilis was merely an old European disease that prior to 1500 had been improperly diagnosed. Even if it did originate in the Americas, syphilis was little enough payback for the disaster visited on the original inhabitants of the Americas by the subsequent ones.”

I’d say that leaves it open for debate.

Earliest yaws we know of was from Middle Pleistocene Africa 1.5 million years ago. Before finding that, the earliest known evidence of the bacterial affliction was a skeleton from the Mariana Islands in the Pacific dated ca. A.D. 850.

[[Yaws is a non-existent or nearly non-existent disease these days.]] Not so, it turns out. It’s making a come-back in Zambia, Ghana and some other countries.

This probably doesn’t count for much here, but I was taught, and read a handful of books which implied that syphillis was a contributing factor to the death and frequent erratic behaivior of several Roman emporers and senators.

One reason given to support the suspicion that syphilis came back with Columbus is the manner in which the disease mutated. The original sufferers developed large sores on their bodies that were not limited to their genitals. Many died within a relatively short time. The speculation has been that the bug mutated to develop a method to infect more people over longer periods without killing the host so rapidly.

This does not prove that the disease was imported from the Americas. (And the description, above, should not be construed to anthropomorphize the mutation into a premeditated event by the bacteria.)

I’m just throwing more data at the thread.


I once worked at The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. The Collections Manager of the Geology Department told me that the earliest evidence of syphillis was a fossilized bear bone from the Americas, which apparently had damage indicative of the disease. (And before we leap into discussions of bear-back sex, bear in mind that diseases can jump species through other types of contact.) :wink:

[[The speculation has been that the bug mutated to develop a method to infect more people over longer periods without killing the host so rapidly.]]

This is typical of most microbes. The ones who keep their hosts alive the longest tend to win out over the really aggressive ones, for obvious reasons. Most disease bugs become less virulent over time.

Let us not forget that the native americans caught all those disgusting european diseases not simply from idiots who sneezed on or raped them, but also from heroes like Lord Jeffrey Amherst, for whom Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts is named. Jeff wasn’t even decent enough to give the indians blankets infested with small pox. He sold the blankets to his doomed hosts. This sort of thing was pretty common and respectable. So much for the good old days.