An exploration of venereal syphilis and skeletal mercury concentration at the 18th century Fortress of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia

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University of New Brunswick


Venereal syphilis is caused by a complex human bacterium in the genus, Treponema. Highly prevalent between the early 16th to mid-20th centuries, this disease initiated numerous outbreaks and epidemics worldwide. Bioarchaeologists have attempted to study venereal syphilis in past human populations; however, this predominantly soft tissue bacterium will only affect bone tissue in the final stages of infection; therefore, disease identification in skeletal remains is problematic. Notwithstanding, syphilis can be studied indirectly by examining its primary medical treatment, mercury, through trace element analysis. For this study, 75 individuals from the 18th century Fortress of Louisbourg, NS were macroscopically and chemically examined for evidence of venereal syphilis. Macroscopically, three individuals showed lesions suggestive of syphilis, whereas 12 individuals had elevated mercury concentrations. Interestingly, these two datasets minimally overlapped, suggesting the mercury data may not represent syphilitic treatments at Louisbourg and were possibly the result of exposure from another source. The multimethod approach of this study allowed for a comprehensive and nuanced examination of venereal syphilis in the Fortress of Louisbourg population, a significant 18th century New France colony.