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No. 132: NOV-DEC 2000

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Columbus Exonerated: Viking Blamed

About 1500 A.D., a major epidemic of syphilis swept across Europe. Up until this time, this continent had been thought to have been free from this dreaded affliction. In the New World, though, archeologists had uncovered many skeletons dated well before 1500 showing unmistakable signs of syphilis. America was obviously the source of this scourge, but how did it ever get to Europe? Of course, every child knows that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. It seemed pretty certain that Columbus's men and the American aborigines had been very, very friendly.

Actually, about a dozen pre-1500 skeletons displaying hints of the disease had been found in England and Ireland, but they were not convincing enough to dethrone the Columbus theory.

Recently, however, several additional syphilitic skeletons were dug up at a medieval friary in northeastern Britain. The earliest of these bones date back to about 1300. In fact, the new evidence suggests that there was a geographically limited mini-epidemic of syphilis in Britain about this time. Columbus was now off the hook, but who should be hung on it instead? The Vikings, of course. Viking merchants began visiting this part of England about 1300. And it is now admitted that the Vikings had made it to the New World source of the disease circa 1000. Case closed!?

(Malakoff, David; "Columbus, Syphilis, and English Monks," Science. 289:723, 2000.)

Comments. But the Viking contacts with the American aborigines were far from amicable. If some Viking skeletons from this period were to show signs of syphilis, we could blame them more easily. Until then, let's line up some other suspects: the Welsh Prince Madoc, the Irish St. Brendan, Earl Henry Sinclair of Orkney, or those Celts and Phoenicians who seem to have left messages on rocks throughout eastern North America.

From Science Frontiers #132, NOV-DEC 2000. � 2000 William R. Corliss

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