News FocusSociety for American Archaeology 76th Annual Meeting

Searching for Syphilis's Origins

Science  22 Apr 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6028, pp. 417
DOI: 10.1126/science.332.6028.417

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Some researchers argue that syphilis and related bacterial illnesses arose in the New World and were transmitted to the Old World via Columbus's crew and that of later ships, while others argue that they were already present in both arenas, or just in the Old World. Syphilis, bejel, and another variant called yaws cause inflammation of tissue around bone, leaving severe scars and cratering on bones that researchers can see in ancient skeletons, although determining exactly which condition afflicted the dead is tricky. But researchers reported at the Society for American Archaeology meeting that they have pinpointed the presence of bejel in the New World before Columbus—and that the wrecks of Japanese junks suggest a mechanism for its transmission from Asia to North America.