“#Tropical disease in medieval Europe revises the history of a pathogen related to syphilis”
Diseases in the syphilis family, known as the treponemal diseases, are assumed to have had a long history with humans, though their inferred history in Europe is laden with controversy. The prevailing opinion holds that the first outbreak of syphilis in Europe coincided with Charles VIII’s 1495 siege of Naples, where a debilitating disease erupted amongst his infantry and quickly spread around Europe. Since this outbreak happened just after the return of Columbus and his crew from their first trans-Atlantic voyage, most discussants believe syphilis was a newcomer to Europe that originated in the New World. But support is growing for a different theory. An increasing number of specialists in bone pathology believe they have properly identified examples of pre-1493 syphilis in Europe, which has ignited on-going debates about models of its evolution.
“We were able to reconstruct an impressively well-preserved genome that, to our surprise, fell within the diversity of modern yaws,” comments Giffin. Yaws is a lesser-known treponemal disease primarily of the skin that affects both humans and other primates in warm, tropical environments. “Finding it in northern Europe in the mid-15th century was unexpected,” she adds.
Yaws seems much younger than we thought
Since yaws infects both humans and non-human primates, some believe it to be a very old disease, having been with humans before the massive Pleistocene migrations that spread us around the globe.
“To our surprise, the yaws genome we reconstructed was just a few genetic steps away from the ancestor of all yaws varieties known in humans and non-human primates,” says Bos. “Given the age of our medieval skeletons, it seems that all strains of yaws that we know today appeared on the scene only about 1,000 years ago.”
“This has important implications for the history of treponemal disease in Europe,” Bos adds. “We can now confirm that yaws was circulating in medieval Europe, and given its similarity to syphilis and its recent emergence, it’s possible that yaws contributed in some way to the famous late 15th-to 16th-century outbreak that we normally ascribe only to syphilis.”
One possibility is that yaws emerged in either humans or other primates in West Africa within the last millennium and made its way to Europe in the mid-15th century. European presence in West Africa increased in the 15th century, as did the forced relocations of Africans to Europe through establishment of the transatlantic slave trade. These activities would have rapidly disseminated a new and highly contagious disease such as yaws.
“The enigma about the origin of syphilis is still open,” says Bos, “but disease ecology in medieval Europe is clearly more complex than we think.”
Karen Giffin et al, A treponemal genome from an historic plague victim supports a recent emergence of yaws and its presence in 15th century Europe, Scientific Reports (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-66012-x
Tropical disease in medieval Europe revises the history of a pathogen related to syphilis (2020, June 11)
retrieved 11 June 2020
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