Biological anthropologist Charlotte Roberts of the University of Durham in England says that she fell into paleopathology, the study of the history of disease, almost by chance. But she was actually well-suited for the field. "I was a nurse before I went into academia, so I had a medical interest and background. It seemed the obvious choice for a career to look at disease in the past," she says. Roberts has now spent almost two decades examining ancient skeletons for signs of syphilis, leprosy, tuberculosis, and other diseases. Although her work does not exclusively focus on syphilis -- she has books in print on tuberculosis through antiquity and on the health of the British, from prehistory to the present -- she admits she has a particular interest in the illness, which is caused by a nasty bug called the Treponema pallidum bacterium.
"It is not my burning desire to study syphilis my whole life!" she laughs, "but there has been so much emphasis on the New World being the origin of the treponemal diseases. And now that there is more evidence coming out of the Old World" -- including the diseased skeletons found in the excavation at the Hull friary, as described in the SECRETS OF THE DEAD II episode "The Syphilis Enigma" -- "our view of the history and evolution of the disease is changing."
Even before her work on the syphilis-ravaged skeletons at Hull, Roberts had doubts about the New World origins theory of syphilis -- the idea that the sexually-transmitted disease was brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus's crew, who had picked it up during sexual contact with native women during their 1493 voyage to Haiti. "We had found pre-Columbian syphilis in Britain before we found the Hull skeletons," Roberts says. "About half a dozen sites in Britain have skeletons with evidence of venereal syphilis. The skeletal evidence is conclusive," she says, "but the radiocarbon dating isn't in every case." Pre-Columbian skeletons with signs of syphilis have also been found elsewhere in Europe, including Naples and Pompeii, and, Roberts says, at a new excavation in Israel.
What that evidence indicates, suggest Roberts and other researchers, is the sexually transmitted form of syphilis may have originated in both the New and Old Worlds, long before Christopher Columbus ever embarked on his celebrated voyages. "It really is very difficult to say where it came from, or when it originated, because the evidence is so inconsistent throughout the world. But I think it probably developed on both sides of the Atlantic, pre-Columbus."
Roberts is currently working on obtaining new radiocarbon dates of the three Hull bodies with the most profound syphilis-related skeletal changes, and of some of the other individuals buried at the friary who may have been affected by the disease. Since Hull was a port city, its residents ate a lot of fish, "and that high marine content in the diet can affect the accuracy of the radiocarbon results," Roberts says. She is also working with collaborators to try and tease ancient DNA out of the bones, which could prove once and for all if venereal syphilis really was rampant at Hull. "We're hoping to actually isolate the organism that caused the skeletal changes," she says.