London: Syphilis was widespread in Central Europe even before Christopher Columbus' famous voyage to America, say scientists who have identified several cases of the disease in Austria dating back to as early as 1320 AD.
The study suggests that Italian explorer Columbus himself cannot be blamed for introducing the sexually transmitted infection to Europe.
"In 1495, a "new" disease spread throughout Europe: syphilis. Christopher Columbus was said to have brought this sexually transmitted disease back from his voyage to America," researchers said.
At least, that has been the accepted theory up until now, researchers said.
Using morphological and structural evidence, researchers from the Medical University of Vienna have now identified several cases of congenital syphilis dating back to as early as 1320 AD in skeletons from excavations at the cathedral square of St Polten, Austria.
"The discovery clearly refutes the previous theory," said study leaders Karl Grobschmidt and Fabian Kanz of MedUni Vienna.
Congenital syphilis, which is passed from a pregnant mother to her unborn child, was primarily identified by changes to the teeth of skeletons from the 14th century.
"We found so-called Hutchinson's teeth with central notches and converging edges and mulberry molars, which are characteristic signs of syphilis," said Kanz and Grobschmidt.
The researchers prepared undecalcified bone thin sections from the bones and teeth of the skeletons for histological examination and analysis.
These thin sections, which can only be produced in a few places throughout the world, were subsequently examined by a special light microscopy technique to morphologically determine the pathogen involved.
Up to now, a total of 9,000 skeletons as old as the 9th century AD have been recovered from the excavations in the cathedral square in St Polten. The large number of unearthed individuals at one archaeological site is unique in Europe.
The recovery was conducted in close collaboration with the Urban Archaeology Department of the state capital of Lower Austria.
This remarkable discovery of the earliest evidence of syphilis between 1320 and 1390 now awaits confirmation by molecular biological tests and proteomics (examination of the proteome using biochemical methods).
The research was published in the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology.