Open Access Research article

Pre-Columbian treponemal infection in Denmark?- a paleopathological and archaeometric approach

Susanne Schwarz12*, Lilian Skytte3 and Kaare Lund Rasmussen3

Author Affiliations

1 Graduate School Human Development in Landscapes, Christian-Albrechts University Kiel, Leibnizstra├če 3, D-24118 Kiel, Germany

2 Department of Human Biology, Zoological Institute, Christian-Albrechts University Kiel, Am Botanischen Garten 9, D-24118 Kiel, Germany

3 Institute of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, University of Southern Denmark, Campusvej 55, DK-5230, Odense, M, Denmark

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Heritage Science 2013, 1:19  doi:10.1186/2050-7445-1-19

Published: 24 June 2013

Abstract

The aim of this paper is to investigate five new cases of possible treponematosis in early medieval Denmark. A total of 1018 skeletons from Danish and present day German cemeteries have been examined, and five candidates of pre-Columbian individuals have been selected from three Danish burial sites on Funen, Jutland and Zealand. The five individuals with a possible infection with treponematoses have been analysed anthropological and chemically.

Two of the skeletons exhibited cranial lesions, i.e. serpiginous and focal superficial cavitation. The other three only displayed periosteal reactions of varying degrees on the postcranial skeleton. Computed tomography scans showed focal obliteration of the periosteum on the long bones as well as on the affected skulls. Radiocarbon dates and stable isotope analyses indicate that three of the four analysed skeletons predate AD 1493. High levels of mercury in three of the individuals suggest that medical treatment with Hg-containing medicine took place.

Considering the climate and geography at the sites, venereal syphilis might be the treponemal disease causing the pathologies on the skeletal remains. However, the historical background, the bone lesions and their prevalence point to the presence of a less aggressive, maybe non-venereal, form of treponematosis. Consequently, the hypothesis that pre-Columbian venereal syphilis existed among the analysed skeletal material is rejected with the help of various archaeometric analyses.

Keywords:
Syphilis; Treponematoses; Osteology; Paleopathology; Mercury; Refshale; St. Albani; Tirup