Possible case of congenital syphilis in 14th century skeleton identified from Austrian cemetery

The 14th century Austrian skeleton exhibits tell tale dental signs of syphilis. Image: MedUni Vienna

The 14th century Austrian skeleton exhibits tell tale dental signs of syphilis. Image: MedUni Vienna

The accepted theory up until now was that Christopher Columbus brought syphilis back from the Americas in the 15th century. However, using morphological and structural evidence, researchers from the Department of Forensic Medicine and the Centre for Anatomy and Cell Biology at MedUni Vienna have now identified a possible case of congenital syphilis dating back to around 1320 AD in a skeleton from excavations at the cathedral square of St. Pölten, Austria.

Congenital syphilis, which is passed from a pregnant mother to her unborn child, was primarily identified by changes to the teeth of a skeleton from the 14th century. “We found so-called Hutchinson’s teeth with central notches and converging edges and mulberry molars, which are characteristic signs of syphilis,” study authors Kanz and Großschmidt explained.

Their findings have now been published in the Journal of Biological and Clinical Anthropology (open access).

The researchers at the Centre for Anatomy and Cell Biology of the Medical University of Vienna prepared undecalcified bone thin sections from the bones and teeth of the skeleton for histological examination and analysis. These thin sections, which can only be produced in a few places throughout the world, were subsequently examined by a special light microscopy technique to morphologically determine the pathogen involved.

Up to now, a total of 9000 skeletons as old as the 9th century AD have been recovered from the excavations in the cathedral square in St. Pölten. The large number of unearthed individuals at one archaeological site is unique in Europe. The recovery was conducted in close collaboration with the Urban Archaeology Department of the state capital of Lower Austria.

This discovery now awaits confirmation by molecular biological tests and proteomics (examination of the proteome using biochemical methods). The scientists hope to gain further insights from the proteomic analysis, in particular, because the DNA of syphilis decays very rapidly.