The world’s oldest victim of syphilis was found in an indigenous tribe

The first pre-Columbian genetic evidence

Recent research has made us look at syphilis and its history differently. For example, it turns out that syphilis is only one of four diseases in the bacteria family Treponema. The other three diseases – known as shingles, rasambosis, and pinta – are not sexually transmitted diseases, but they cause chronic infections of the mouth and skin.

The discovery opened new doors for tracing the origins of syphilis, as European and American scientists and archaeologists could now also search for the three related diseases. For example, they looked at changes in bones that characterize diseases.

Since 2020, this has led to 21 discoveries of bones and teeth in Europe, suggesting syphilis was present here before voyages to South America. Being the eldest of two children in southern Italy, it dates back to between 580 and 250 BC. Unfortunately, the bacterial genome cannot be reconstructed here.

On the other side of the world, paleogeneticist Verena Scheunemann of the University of Zurich obtained DNA from bacteria T. pallidum is endemic (bejel) It was found at an excavation site on the southern coast of Brazil, Jabuticabeira 2. This was the home of an indigenous tribe that apparently contains the first genetic evidence of syphilis in the Americas before Columbus arrived.

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Megan Vasquez

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