The 82nd Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2013)

Treponematoses in pre-Columbian Denmark- A paleopathological, archaeometric and historical approach


Graduate School Human Development in Landscapes, Christian-Albrechts University Kiel

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A pre-Columbian existence of the Treponema pallidum pallidum bacterium in the Old World is still controversial. While single findings of possible syphilitic lesions were made all over Europe, syphilis is not mentioned in historical records before the return of Christopher Columbus in 1493. The aim of this paper is to investigate new cases from Denmark that emerged during a study of more than 1000 skeletons from both German and Danish medieval cemeteries. Six pre-Columbian individuals from three different Danish burial sites on Funen, Jutland and Zealand suggest an infection with treponematoses. Two of the skeletons show cranial lesions, i.e. stellate depressions on the right and left parietal bone, the other three only display periosteal reactions of varying degrees on the postcranial skeleton. None of the 247 examined subadult individuals showed signs of congenital syphilis. Computed tomography scans showed focal obliteration of the periosteum on long bones as well as on the affected skulls. Radiocarbon dates indicate that three of the four analysed skeletons predate AD 1493 at a level of 95% confidence. Considering climate and geography of the findings, venereal syphilis might be the treponemal disease causing pathologies among these skeletal remains. However, regarding bone lesions, their prevalence and the historical research, it all points to a less aggressive, maybe non-venereal form of treponematosis. Consequently the pre-Columbian theory could be rejected.

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