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The history of syphilis:

Developing more nuanced approaches to understanding its impact on the past


Treponemal disease, encompassing pinta, bejel, yaws, venereal and congenital syphilis, is a bacterial infection that has a long history. It is also very much in our world today, including venereal syphilis, along with other sexually transmitted diseases. Venereal syphilis, a sexually transmitted infection, has particularly fascinated scholars particularly from both medical history and bioarchaeology (palaeopathology), with the media and the public always having their part to play in debates. There have been particular landmarks in the study of this infection, including Baker and Armelagos (1988:Current Anthropology), Dutour et al (1994: The origin of syphilis. Before or after 1493?), Powell and Cook (2005: The myth of syphilis) and Harper et al (2011 Yearbook of Physical Anthropology). There have also been several attempts to isolate the DNA of the bacterium and work in this field of palaeopathology is developing.

Current project

In 2018, and organized by Brenda Baker (Arizona State University, Tempe, USA) and Gillian Crane-Kramer (State University of New York, Plattsburgh, New York State, USA), a small group of invited scholars from different disciplines gathered in Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA at the School for Advanced Research to move the debates on this infectious disease forward (funded by the School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe). Scholars representing medicine, bioarchaeology, medical history, archaeological dating, and biomolecular science spent a three-day seminar exploring the “state of play”. This was followed by two events in 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio: a session on the subject matter at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropology, and a workshop on treponemal disease at the Annual Meeting of the Paleopathology Association. The outcomes of the project so far have led to a series of recommendations in a published paper, and more activities are planned. These include a monograph to extend and consolidate what we actually know about this infection and, even more importantly, what we need to know


  • School for Advanced Research, Santa Fe for the initial seminar

Project Partners

Participants at the Santa Fe seminar from the USA (Baker, Crane-Kramer, Gregoricka, Lee, Lukehart, Stodder, Stone, Winnigear), The Netherlands (Dee), Australia (Henneberg), and England (Mabey and Roberts)

Key publications

  • Baker B, Crane-Kramer G, Dee MW, Gregoricka LA, Henneberg M, Lee C, Lukehart SA, Mabey DC, Roberts CA, Stodder ALW, Stone AC, Winingear S 2020 Advancing the Understanding of Treponemal Disease in the Past and Present. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology 171(Suppl. 70): 5–41
  • Roberts CA, Redfern R 2019 The history of treponematosis continues to be one of the most contentious issues in science ‘ (Ortner 2003:273) – some perspectives from bioarchaeology. In S Sretzer (ed): The Hidden Affliction: sexually-transmitted infections in history and infertility. Rochester U.P./Boydell & Brewer History of Medicine series, 93-123
  • Roberts CA, Buikstra JE 2019 Bacterial infections. In JE Buikstra (ed): Ortner’s Identification of pathological conditions in human skeletal remains. Elsevier, pp 321-439
  • Working paper for Santa Fe Seminar: Roberts CA 2018: Treponemal disease in the Old World (Europe): a critical review of the skeletal evidence

 Group of academics sitting round a table at a seminar