Two Probable Cases of Infection with Treponema pallidum during the Neolithic Period in Northern Vietnam (~2000-1500B.C.)

Melandri Vlok* (Corresponding Author), Marc Fredrick Oxenham, Kate Domett, Tran Thi Minh, Nguyen Thi Mai Huong, Hirofumi Matsumura, Hiep Hoang Trinh, Thomas Higham, Charles Higham, Nghia Truong Huu, Hallie Buckley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Skeletal evidence of two probable cases of treponematosis, caused by infection with the bacterium Treponema pallidum, from the northern Vietnamese early Neolithic site of Man Bac (1906–1523 cal B.C.) is described. The presence of nodes of subperiosteal new bone directly associated with superficial focal cavitations in a young adult male and a seven-year- old child are strongly diagnostic for treponemal disease. Climatic and epidemiological contexts suggest yaws (Treponema pallidum pertenue) as the most likely causative treponeme. This evidence is the oldest discovered in the Asia-Pacific region and is the first well-established pre-Columbian example in this region in terms of diagnosis and secure dating. The coastal ecology, sedentary settlement, and high fertility at the site of Man Bac all provided a biosocial context conducive to the spread of treponemal disease among inhabitants of the site. Co-morbidity with scurvy in both individuals demonstrates that malnutrition during the agricultural transition may have exacerbated the expression of treponematosis in this community.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)15-36
Number of pages22
JournalBioarchaeology International
Issue number1
Early online date25 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

We would like to thank Dr. Ngo Anh Son, Mr. Bui Van Khanh, and Ms. Nellissa Ling for their assistance with the radiographs, and Dr. Anne Marie E. Snoddy for in-put on the application of a standardized approach to treponemal disease. We thank the associate editor of Bioarchaeology International and three anonymous reviewers for their comments and advice in revising the manuscript.

Funding: This research was supported by a National Geographic Early Career Grant (EC-54332R-18), Royal Society of New Zealand Skinner Fund Grant and a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship.


  • agricultural transition
  • yaws
  • Southeast Asia


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