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Archive for Thursday, June 13, 2002

Researchers hope to discover who’s in Columbus’ tombs

June 13, 2002

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— A pair of Spanish high school teachers want to harness new technology to settle an old argument: who's buried in Christopher Columbus' tomb?

Make that tombs. Authorities in Seville, Spain, and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic both claim to be watching over the remains of the explorer, known in Spanish as Cristobal Colon.

Tombs believed to contain the remains of Spanish explorer
Christopher Columbus are in the Cathedral of Seville, Spain,
pictured here, and the Faro a Colon in Santo Domingo, Dominican
Republic. Authorities in Spain and the Dominican Republic both
claim to have the remains of Columbus.

Tombs believed to contain the remains of Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus are in the Cathedral of Seville, Spain, pictured here, and the Faro a Colon in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Authorities in Spain and the Dominican Republic both claim to have the remains of Columbus.

For more than 100 years, historians have debated which side is right.

The only sure way to find out, says history teacher Marcial Castro, is dig up both sets of bones, glean some strands of DNA and compare them to DNA from Hernando Colon, Columbus' son through an extramarital affair.

Hernando Colon's remains are the only available, authenticated ones of a close relative of Columbus, Castro says. They're buried at the cathedral in Seville, along with the bones that Spain says are his father's.

In the Dominican Republic, a huge, cross-shaped monument called the Faro a Colon, or Columbus Lighthouse, also purports to hold the remains of Christopher Columbus.

Castro, 38, teaches in a public high school in Seville province, studies genealogy on the side and has published several papers on historical figures. This is by far his grandest gig yet.

The Andalusian regional government has acted as intermediary and formally asked church officials in Seville to open Columbus' tomb.

The tomb of Christopher Columbus at Faro a Colon in Santo Domingo,
Dominican Republic.

The tomb of Christopher Columbus at Faro a Colon in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Expert assistance

"My heart is jumping out of my chest," said Castro, who is working with colleague Sergio Algarrada, a biology teacher at Ostippo High School in Estepa town.

They've enlisted help from Jose Antonio Lorente, director of the Laboratory of Genetic Identification of the University of Granada, to examine DNA from the various sets of remains.

Lorente usually works on criminal cases but has also helped identify people killed under military regimes in Latin America. His lab works regularly with the FBI.

But it is not clear if the Catholic church in Spain will go along, or if authorities in Santo Domingo will allow the bones in the Columbus Lighthouse to be disturbed by the probing fingers of science.

Another unknown is whether enough intact DNA could be recovered to carry out genetic tests. The double-helix that provides the blueprint of human life degrades over time, and it's been 500 years. "Columbus' DNA will be in bad shape," Lorente predicted.

Still, Castro said the Spanish academic community is also excited about his proposal, for which he has requested funding from National Geographic, and no one seems worried by the prospect of Spain learning it's got the wrong guy buried in Seville.

Source of confusion

Columbus died in the Spanish city of Valladolid on May 20, 1506. He had asked to be buried in the Americas, but no church of sufficient stature existed there so he was interred in a monastery in Valladolid.

Three years later, his remains were moved to a Carthusian monastery on the island of La Cartuja in Seville. In 1537, Maria de Rojas y Toledo, widow of Columbus' son Diego, was allowed to send the bones of her husband and his father to the cathedral in Santo Domingo for burial. There they lay until 1795, when Spain ceded the island of Hispaniola to France and decided Columbus' remains should not fall into the hands of foreigners.

So a set of remains that the Spaniards thought were Columbus' were dug up from behind the main altar in the newly built cathedral and shipped to a cathedral in Havana, where they remained until the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 and Spain brought them to Seville.

It did so amid controversy. In 1877, workers digging inside the Santo Domingo cathedral unearthed a leaden box containing 13 large bone fragments and 28 small ones. It was inscribed "Illustrious and distinguished male, don Cristobal Colon."

The Dominicans said these were the real remains of Columbus and that the Spaniards must have taken the wrong body in 1795. The remains the Dominicans found are the ones kept in the lighthouse.

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