The origins of syphilis have long been steeped in mystery and myth. Calling upon recent archeological discoveries, painstaking study, and observations from experts across a wide array of academic disciplines, The Syphilis Enigma attempts to untangle this complicated narrative and discern truth from fiction.
For years, it was believed that the initial spread of syphilis had stemmed from an act of vengeance. When Columbus crossed the Atlantic in 1492, he brought with him a variety of infectious illnesses. In retaliation for this offense, Native American Indians sent their own venal brand of infection to European shores. When Columbus returned home the following year, he brought word of the New World, but he also carried with him a new disease. Subsequently, the first recorded outbreak of syphilis spread across Europe and devastated the region.
Thatќs one version of history. In 1994, archeologists began writing another. While embarking on a dig through the ruins of a medieval cemetery in Hull, they unearthed the remains of monks who bore the tell tale signs of syphilis, including pot marks on the skulls, holes in the palettes, and significant scarring and lesions on the leg bones. Carbon dating showed that these burials took place long before Columbus' epic journey.
How these celibate religious figures contracted a disease which is generally spread through sexual promiscuity was just part of the maze that researchers faced in the wake of this breakthrough discovery. The film portrays this incredible process through believably produced reenactments, real excavation footage, and interviews with various historians, archeologists and paleopathologists. How do they confirm their findings and to what extent will their conclusions require a complete rewrite of history? We learn much about ancient English customs and culture, the mutating characteristics of syphilis throughout the centuries, and the cause of its spread in certain regions of the country.
As our perception of history exists in a constant state of evolution, some of these conclusions will no doubt bring about even more questions for future generations. The Syphilis Enigma appreciates this ongoing dialogue with our past. The film works as both a captivating detective story and an absorbing history lesson.
Directed by: Amy Bucher, Christopher Salt