Rheumatic Diseases in the Ancient Americas: The Skeletal Manifestations of Treponematoses : JCR: Journal of Clinical Rheumatology

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Rheumatic Diseases in the Ancient Americas

The Skeletal Manifestations of Treponematoses

Pineda, Carlos MD; Mansilla-Lory, Josefina PhD; Martínez-Lavín, Manuel MD; Leboreiro, Ilán PhD; Izaguirre, Aldo MD; Pijoan, Carmen PhD

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JCR: Journal of Clinical Rheumatology 15(6):p 280-283, September 2009. | DOI: 10.1097/RHU.0b013e3181b0c848


The effect of rheumatic and infectious diseases on skeletal remains provides an important source of information for knowledge of contemporary medicine. Few pathologic conditions have attracted so much interest as treponematoses. One of these, syphilis, was the most feared venereal disease throughout the civilized world until the introduction of penicillin in the 20th century.


To describe paleopathological and ceramic illustrations of treponematoses in ancient Mexico.

Materials and Methods: 

Paleopathological and ceramic material examples from the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico were reviewed.


A unique paleopathologic site for treponemal diseases comprises the La Candelaria Cave skeletal collection from northern Mexico. The cave was used as a burial site and contained the bones of at least 83 adults and 33 subadults. Fifty-one percent of the recovered skulls possess erosions of the vault consistent with treponematoses. Some of these exhibit the impressive frontal bone lytic changes with irregular borders typical of caries sicca. In addition, periostosis of the long bones was found in up to 88% of the study sample, including 6 examples of saber-shin deformity of tibias. Radiocarbon dating (14−C) of a bone retrieved from the cave ranges from 1100 to 1300 A.D. Additionally, a Pre-Hispanic ceramic figurine from the Mexican state of Nayarit depicting a lame man with multiple nodular skin lesions that suggest gummatous treponemal infection is described.


These ancient specimens reinforce the notion that treponemal infection was present on the American Continent before European penetration of the New World. These very advanced paleopathologic lesions and ceramic representations demonstrate the degree to which these diseases wrought devastation before the antibiotic era. In ancient times, treponematoses were true rheumatic diseases that produced profound skeletal abnormalities marked by periosteal accretion and bone destruction.

Copyright © 2009 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.

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