Hidden History: the Old World Legacy of Syphilis

The Syphilis Enigma

Directed by Amy Bucher and Christopher Salt (2001)

Film Review

This documentary reports on a forensic paleontologist’s investigation into the origins of syphilis. For 500 years, history has blamed Native American women, who allegedly transmitted it to Columbus’s crew members in 1493. Recently a fourteenth century skeleton from Hull (England) called this 500-year-old into question. European paleontologists began a search for pre-Columbian evidence of the disease and also found it human remain from ancient Greece and Pompeii.

Why, then, do ancient New World remains also show evidence of syphilis? The current hypothesis is that Native Americans suffered from a milder variety of the illness with airborne transmission via saliva droplets The European version, in contrast, was only transferred via sexual contact and, in most cases, was fatal (unless sufferers died from plague, smallpox or cholera first).