“Like a virgin”: Absence of rheumatoid arthritis and treponematosis, good sanitation and only rare gout in Italy prior to the 15th century

“Like a virgin”: Absence of rheumatoid arthritis and treponematosis, good sanitation and only rare gout in Italy prior to the 15th century

By BM Rothschild, A Coppa and PP Petrone

Reumatismo, Vol.56:1 (2004)


OBJECTIVES: This study was conducted to test several hypotheses: 1. That rheumatoid arthritis and syphilis were New World diseases, only transmitted to the Old World subsequent to the passages of Christopher Columbus; 2. To indirectly test the hypothesis that lead poisoning was prevalent in Roman Italy by looking for its byproduct, gout; 3. To test the hypothesis of compromised sanitation in ancient Italy, on the basis of spondyloarthropathy frequency; and 4. To assess variation of trauma frequencies in ancient Italy, by examining frequency of focal periosteal reaction.

METHODS: Skeletons from sites ranging from the Bronze Age to the Black Plague epidemic of 1485-1486 were macroscopically evaluated for focal periosteal reaction and for the cardinal signs of rheumatoid arthritis, treponemal disease, gout and spondyloarthropathy.

RESULTS: Examination of 688 individuals revealed low frequency of focally distributed periosteal reaction (bumps) in sites dated from the 3400-700 years before present, sharply increasing in the 15th century. Diffuse periosteal reaction was present only as isolated occurrences secondary to hypertrophic osteoarthropathy and sabre shin reaction was notably absent. Erosive disease was uncommon and always oligoarticular in distribution. No marginal erosions were present, with the exception of an isolated metatarsal with classic overhanging edge sign of gout. Subchondral erosions, peripheral joint fusion and axial skeletal involvement identified spondyloarthropathy frequencies of 1-3%, independent of the antiquity of the site.

CONCLUSIONS: Italy, prior to Columbus was like a virgin. Rheumatoid arthritis and treponemal disease (specifically syphilis) were not present, further supporting the contention that they are New World-derived diseases. Periosteal signs of minor trauma were rare prior to fifteenth century plague times. This suggests a potential role of domestic (as opposed to outside environment activities) in is development. The hypothesis for a role of lead poisoning in the demise of the Roman Empire is falsified by the rarity of gout. The frequency of spondyloarthropathy was significantly below that found in sanitarily challenged populations, suggesting high standards of hygiene in ancient Italy.

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