A team from the Medical University of Vienna have identified what they believe to be cases of congenital syphilis – the version of the disease that is passed from mother to child – in skeletons found in Austria dating to 1320.
The find could provide the first solid proof that the disease existed in pre-Columbian Europe, according to research published in the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology this month.
The 14th century skeletons were exhumed from the Domplatz (or Cathedral Square) in the lower Austrian city of St. Pölten and feature telltale signs of the disease in its congenital form.
The skeletons' teeth strongly suggest the presence of congenital syphilis through two defects.
Firstly, their incisors are widely spaced and contain distinctive central notches – a feature known as Hutchinson's teeth. Secondly, the skeletons' molars show globular growths of excess enamel – a condition known as Mulberry molars.
Taken together, the two features provide strong evidence that syphilis was present in Europe more than a century before it supposedly arrived from the New World.
Bone and enamel samples have now been taken and sent for analysis to see if microbiologists can confirm the likely presence of the disease in the skeletons found at St. Pölten.
"It's a great dilemma: at present there are no good examples of the disease although there is some evidence that it existed in ancient Egypt, but it's very difficult to diagnose," Dr Francesco Galassi, an Italian academic who specializes in the history of diseases at the University of Zurich, told The Local.
"These morphological traits are not just specific to syphilis," said Galassi adding that more proof would be needed before the presence of the disease could be confirmed.
The first documented outbreak of the disease occurred in Naples in 1495, which has led many to postulate that it was brought back from the Americas by sailors on Columbus' first voyage who had fallen for the allures of the natives.
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The extent of syphilis in the Americas is confirmed pre-1492 by skeletal remains found at native American sites and it has long been thought the disease was unknown to pre-contact Europeans.