The 300-year-old skull of a Narragansett Indian girl gives some support to the theory that syphilis did not originate in the New World, but instead was brought by Europeans to America, an anthropologist said yesterday.
For some years, it was believed that syphilis was transmitted from North America back to Europe, probably by the crew on Christopher Columbus' ship when it returned from his first voyage. By 1500 the first widespread, officially recorded epidemic of syphilis had spread across the European continent.
More recently, some anthropologists have said that the disease originally traveled in the opposite direction. They have maintained that syphilis was present in Europe for some years, but was called venereal leprosy, and that the Indians were subjected to the disease for the first time by the colonists of the 1600s.
The controversy about the origin and travels of the disease has continued for some years.
Now Marc Kelley, a physical anthropologist at University of Rhode Island, has found among 60 Narragansett Indian skeletons one of a young woman who died of syphilis. She was about 17, but had such an extreme case of the disease that it had attacked and decayed large portions of the bone in the nasal cavity. It usually takes years, as long as two decades, for syphilis to cause such extensive damage, Kelley said.
This suggests that the young girl, who probably had the disease for no more than a few years at most, had no natural resistance to it. If the disease had existed for some time among the Indians, a certain amount of resistance probably would have built up, as it has in western populations since that time.
Paul Robinson, anthropologist with the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, which is overseeing the dig at Kingstown, R.I., said the 17th Century was apparently a disastrous one in many ways for East Coast Indians.
"One of the reasons the pilgrims who landed in 1620 found it so easy to settle here is that some of the Indian populations had been nearly wiped out already," Robinson said.
Smallpox and measles, which researchers say they believe were first introduced to the Indians by the earliest European colonists, apparently were responsible for several great epidemics that ran through the Indian population in that century. In some areas 90 percent of the population was wiped out by these diseases new to the Indians, Robinson said.
The skeleton of the young Narragansett girl was one of more than 60 uncovered over the past two summers after bulldozers accidently uncovered some of the skeletons at a construction site in Kingstown. The skeletons date from about 1650 to 1670.
Kelley said many of the skeletons showed evidence of diseases, including tuberculosis, transmitted to them by colonists. Though he has not finished examining all the skeletons, he said he expects to find that some also had smallpox, because 60 percent of the skeletons found in the burial site were between the ages of 3 and 17 years. Normally, those in burial plots are found to be the very old or very young, with few adolescents.
The content of the graves was a curious mix of Indian and European artifacts. Indian ceramics and wampum--the shell beads made by the Narragansetts and used as currency--were resting alongside bells, jewelry and brass pots and spoons from Europe. The mix of artifacts as well as the apparent disease reflects the struggle of the Indians with the wave of incoming European culture, the researchers said.