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Nearly five centuries after Christopher Columbus set sail, scientists still debate whether European explorers unleashed the scourge of syphilis on the Americas. A study says it might have been the other way around.

Research by two University of Massachusetts anthropologists cites studies of skeletal remains that they say show forms of syphilis existed in the New World before Columbus landed.In contrast, the researchers said studies from the pre-1492 Old World show almost no evidence of syphilis.

Doctoral candidate Brenda J. Baker and Professor George J. Armelagos base part of their conclusions on an apparent epidemic of syphilis in Europe in the 1500s.

Their research was presented in an article, "The Origin and Antiquity of Syphilis," which appeared in Current Anthropology.

An opposing theory holds that venereal syphilis was present in Europe before it was transported by the explorers to America, but at the time the disease was not distinguished from leprosy.

Another theory suggests the disease has occurred independently in both continents.

The Massachusetts researchers cite one case of a skull showing signs of syphilis from a London cemetery. But they note the cemetery was used between 1197 and 1537, and it is impossible to date the bone exactly.

Another case from Norway could be pre-Columbian, the researchers note, raising the possibility that Norse explorers brought the disease back to their country. Explorers led by Leif Erikson are acknowledged to have landed in Greenland a little more than 500 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic.

Syphilis is detected by such marks as lesions on bones and marks on skulls, Baker said. It is usually transmitted sexually and, if untreated, it can lead to the degeneration of bones, heart and nerve tissue.

Several skeletons marked by syphilis have been excavated in Australia, but the dating is uncertain, the study said. A handful of possibly pre-Columbian syphilitic bones has been found in southeast Asia, but that is compared to hundreds of discoveries in the Americas, Baker said.

Whether a European epidemic of syphilis occurred after the sailors' return isn't entirely clear. Baker and Armelagos conclude it did after reviewing documents, studies of bones and numerous ordinances passed throughout Europe in the late 1490s concerning the disease.