Yaws Prevents Syphilis
Here’s an interesting obituary about an anthropologist who upset many preconceived notions about Columbus, syphilis, the harm done by changing from hunter-gatherers to agriculture and the discovery of antibiotics…
Remember; while Columbus brought back syphilis, his crew also brought back the cures – mercury and gold. But the most interesting part of his work is that he proved homeopathy by showing yaws prevented syphilis – the two diseases are similar, i.e. homeopathic. The obituary is recounted from the Daily Telegraph.
George Armelagos, who has died aged 77, was a pioneer in the field of bioarchaeology – the study of the skeletal remains of past human populations to study patterns of nutrition, illness and death
His research upset many preconceptions about the past — including the ideas that the move from hunter-gathering to settled agriculture represented progress; that the spread of deadly pathogens from the Old World to the New was a one-way process, and that the age of antibiotics began with Alexander Fleming.
Harmful Change to Agriculture
In one of his most important books, Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture (1984, edited with MN Cohen), Armelagos, an anthropology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, described how the move from foraging to settled agriculture from around 10,000 years ago had led to declining health and an increase in nutritional and infectious diseases among human populations, regardless of where they lived or the type of crops they grew.
For example, an examination of 600 skeletons from an Indian burial site in Illinois showed that after intensive maize cultivation was adopted around AD 1200, the incidence of anaemia rose to 64 per cent from 16 per cent, and average life expectancy dropped to 19 years from 26.
Analysing the results of more than 20 studies, Armelagos and his team found that in virtually all cases the height and health of the people declined. As people became dependent on particular food crops, the variety in their diet became restricted, with the result that they were more prone to nutritional ailments.
Meanwhile, the growth in population density spurred by agricultural settlements led to an increase in infectious diseases, probably exacerbated by problems of sanitation and proximity to domesticated animals. This trend, he found, was repeated worldwide — with one exception: in peoples living in the Nile Valley in what is now Sudan nearly 2,000 years ago.
For more than two decades Armelagos and his colleagues studied bones dated from Nubia, a kingdom south of ancient Egypt, which were remarkably free of signs of the sort of infections associated with settled societies. A chemical analysis of the bones showed that the Nubians were regularly consuming tetracycline, a broad-based antibiotic, most probably in their beer. Indeed their bones were saturated with tetracycline.
The antibiotic is naturally produced by a soil bacteria called streptomyces, and scientists believe that streptomyces might have thrived in vats of Nubian beer — a cereal gruel made out of fermented bread. The high concentrations of tetracycline in Nubian bones, however, suggested that Nubians were regularly consuming the antibiotic and were doing so on purpose, having mastered the complicated brewing process necessary to produce antibiotic beer routinely, contradicting the notion that the drugs are a modern invention. Armelagos described the discovery as “like unwrapping an Egyptian mummy and seeing a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses strapped to the head”.
Syphilis Prevented by Yaws Infection
Armelagos also led long-term research on the origins and spread of syphilis in the Old and New Worlds. The first known European epidemic broke out in the army of Charles VIII after the French King invaded Naples in 1495.
Some scientists suggested that the pathogen might have been brought back from the Americas by Columbus and his crew three years earlier. Initially Armelagos, like many others, dismissed the theory: “I laughed at the idea that a small group of sailors brought back this disease that caused this major European epidemic,” he recalled. Critics claimed that syphilis had been endemic in Europe for centuries but had not been distinguished from other rotting diseases such as leprosy until around 1500.
On further investigation, however, Armelagos and his colleagues found that the evidence supported the Columbian theory. Analysing skeletons dating from before 1492, they found that most did not actually meet at least one of the standard diagnostic criteria for chronic syphilis, such as pitting on the skull, and pitting and swelling of the long bones.
Meanwhile, the skeletons which did meet the criteria came from coastal regions where seafood was a large part of the diet. It is well known that seafood contains “old carbon” from deep ocean waters and thus has the potential to throw out radiocarbon dating estimates by hundreds — even thousands — of years, something known as the “marine reservoir effect”. Once Armelagos had adjusted for the effect of the seafood (measurements of bone-collagen protein can provide a record of diet), all the skeletons were redated to the period after Columbus returned to Europe.
The venereal syphilis bacterium, Treponema pallidum, is closely related to a tropical strain responsible for a non-venereal infection called yaws which spread among early American Indian children. Armelagos suggested that, because many Indian adults were infected as children, they may have acquired a degree of resistance; so sexual transmission would probably not have caused the disease.
When Columbus and his men arrived, however, the only way they could have picked up the bacterium would have been through sexual intercourse. When they returned to a Europe that had no prior exposure, the disease spread like wildfire. “What it really shows to me is that globalisation of disease is not a modern condition,” observed Armelagos. “In 1492, you had the transmission of a number of diseases from Europe that decimated Native Americans, and you also had disease from Native Americans to Europe. The lesson we can learn for today from history is that these epidemics are the result of unrest.”
For more on syphilis read my review of Jeremy Sherr’s book here
The obituary of Prof Armelagos an be read here
Crdits: Yaws Image: Wikipedia