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The oldest known DNA evidence of a syphilis relative was found in Brazil in 2,000-year-old skeletons

Advanced DNA research has shown that the bacteria Treponema pallidum endemicum, a close relative of the organism causing venereal syphilis, was carried by people living on the Brazilian coast thousands of years ago. The group probably had severe shins and mouth sores as a result of the virus.

The microbe’s DNA was discovered in 2,000-year-old human skeletons, and researchers utilized that information to create the oldest known genome of a known syphilis related. Their discovery delays the microbe’s origin by more than a millennium, and they published their results in the journal Nature on Wednesday, Jan. 24.

Since a syphilis epidemic ravaged Europe in 1495, there has been discussion on the disease’s roots. Although the sexually transmitted virus was thought to have already existed in Europe before Christopher Columbus and his crew made the transatlantic voyage, new evidence contradicts this theory.

Syphilis is only one of four illnesses brought on by the same close-knit family of bacteria, according to recent research. The other three “treponemal” illnesses, pinta, yaws, and bejel, are not sexually transmitted and typically result in persistent skin and oral infections.

Over a 1,500-year span, from 1200 B.C. to A.D. 400, more than 200 persons were buried at Jabuticabeira II, each snugly rolled up and given offerings like stone tools, fish, and red ochre. Numerous occurrences of bone lesions that suggested treponemal illness were found in the bones, according to an earlier examination.

Schünemann and associates examined bone samples from 99 of the skeletons for pathogen DNA in order to investigate these remains more thoroughly. They found that 37 of the skeletons were positive for treponemal DNA. Enough information was obtained from four samples, which ranged in age from 350 B.C. to 573 A.D., to allow the researchers to piece together the pathogen’s genome.

The study’s authors said, “Unexpectedly, these genomes are remarkably similar to those of the causative agent of modern bejel.”

Berzel is another name for endemic syphilis, which is transmitted from person to person by oral or cutaneous sores. These days, it’s found in hot, arid regions of western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean rather than humid, coastal areas like that section of Brazil.

By searching for alterations in bone that are indicative of the illnesses, archaeologists from Europe and the Americas have been able to piece together the history of syphilis and its non-venereal cousins in recent decades. However, up until today, no genetic proof of these diseases existing before Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas had been discovered.

The University of Zurich’s Verena Schünemann, a paleogeneticist, and her colleagues have now discovered DNA from the bacteria T. pallidum endemicum in skeletons from the Jabuticabeira II archaeological site. The location is close to Laguna do Camacho on Brazil’s southern coast.

Antibiotics can treat bejel, just as they can treat venereal syphilis. However, thousands of years ago, it’s likely that the Indigenous people of Brazil had no effective means of treatment, so they just had to accept their illness.

In an email to Live Science, Schünemann stated, “There are no historical texts describing the symptoms the people had 2,000 years ago.” nevertheless, “the bacteria likely also caused similar skin lesions [to modern bejel].”

It did not seem that any of the deceased at Jabuticabeira II had been shunned due to their illness. The researchers noted in their study that “the individuals positive for treponemal DNA were not buried separately from other individuals, suggesting that they were treated equally.”

An image of a partially buried human skeleton curled into a tight ball

The yellow highlights on this skeleton’s bones signify the presence of pathogen DNA. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Jose Filippini.)
The scientists wrote that the study places bejel in South America far before European contact in the fifteenth century. Additionally, it allowed the researchers to estimate the bacterium’s most likely origin date, which is more than a thousand years earlier than previously believed and puts it somewhere between 780 B.C. and A.D. 450.

In an email to Live Science, Brenda Baker, an anthropologist at Arizona State University who was not involved in the study, said the study’s results are very intriguing and confirm the theory that treponemal infections have been present in the Americas for a very long period.

“The recovery of such an ancient treponemal genome suggests that we may soon be able to fill in huge gaps in our understanding of the evolution and distribution of this pathogen in antiquity as more aDNA [ancient DNA] is recovered from other locations around the world,” Baker stated.

Schünemann pointed out that this new bejel origin date does not offer any information on the genesis of venereal syphilis.

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