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First colonists led by Christopher Columbus hit by severe scurvy

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Forensic archaeologists have published a new study in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, which suggests that Christopher Columbus's crew was struck with scurvy, a fatal disease caused by lack of vitamin c.  Furthermore, they suggest that scurvy may have led to the collapse of La Isabela, the first European town established in the New World.

Scurvy was at one time common among sailors, pirates and the passengers and crew who were aboard ships at sea longer than perishable fruits and vegetables could be stored (subsisting instead only on cured and salted meats and dried grains). The lack of fruit and vegetables resulted in severe vitamin c deficiency, which was initially presented as symptoms of lethargy, followed by formation of spots on the skin, spongy gums, and bleeding from the mucous membranes. As scurvy advances, there can be open, suppurating wounds, loss of teeth, jaundice, fever, neuropathy and death. The disease became a significant issue in Europe during the ‘Age of Discovery’ in the 15th century.  Between 1500 and 1800, it has been estimated that scurvy killed at least two million sea-travellers.

Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon

Page from the journal of Henry Walsh Mahon (1841) showing the effects of scurvy, from his time aboard HM Convict Ship Barrosa. Image source: Wikipedia

In 1492, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic and, two years later on his second voyage, he and 1,500 colonists founded La Isabela, located in in what is now the Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. However, the colony was abandoned within several years amid sickness and deprivation, which historians have long blamed on diseases such as smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, syphilis and malaria.

However, a recent study has shown among the primary causes of La Isabela was severe scurvy among the first colonists who had made the long and arduous journey to the Dominican Republic.  Researchers from Mexico's Universidad Autonoma de Yucatán examined 27 skeletons of La Isabela inhabitants which were stored at the Museo del Hombre Dominicano in Santo Domingo. The results revealed that at least 20 of the skeletons bore signs of scurvy.  The tell-tale marks were striations carved in the outer lining of bones, particularly found on weight-bearing bones on both sides of the body.

Skeletal remains being dug up at La Isabela

Skeletal remains being dug up at La Isabela, the first European settlement in the New World, founded by Christopher Columbus is 1493. Photo credit: Jim Sugar/Corbis

There were lots of diseases, fevers, epidemics, we know from their writing. It seems no one was spared," says study author Vera Tiesler, an archaeologist at. "But apparently scurvy played a big role.

Scurvy expert George J. R. Maat of Leiden University Medical Center, the Netherlands, added that the study "shows convincingly that the crew members of Columbus who were buried at La Isabela had suffered, but also had healed, from scurvy before they died."  The researchers suggest that the colonisers probably suffered from scurvy when they arrived in 1494, after a three-month long journey.  However, some of the skeletons show signs that they beat the scurvy by the time they died, likely as a result of the colonists eating limited amounts of some foods containing vitamin C.

It is believed that scurvy may have contributed to a wave of deaths in the early colony. Although surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin c, the colonists may have initially maintained their European lifestyle and dietary preferences and, not knowing that vitamin c would cure them of the scurvy, did not try the new fruits and vegetables found in the Dominican Republic.  Tiesler adds that "one problem was that Christopher Columbus himself was more concerned with looking for gold than feeding his people."

Featured image:  Scottish physician James Lind is seen giving citrus fruits to sailors with scurvy. His recommendations for changing the diet of seamen in the 18th century resulted in the wiping out of scurvy from the British Navy. Credit: Bettman / Corbis

By April Holloway

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