CBS News
October 1, 2004

Who's Buried In Columbus' Tomb?

MADRID, Spain, Sept. 30, 2004

Researchers who gleaned DNA from 500-year-old bones have news on the historic dispute over whether Christopher Columbus is buried in Spain or the Dominican Republic, both boasting ornate graves purporting to hold the explorer's remains.

The dispute has simmered for more than 100 years. The research team two leading Spanish forensic scientists, a duo of high school teachers and an anthropologist planned a midday news conference Friday to announce their theory as to which tomb has the right corpse, even though the team is missing one critical piece of the puzzle.

In pioneering detective work that began two years ago, the team dug up and extracted DNA from at least three sets of bones: one Spain says come from Columbus, one historians are certain belong to his son Hernando, and one researchers believe is Columbus' brother, Diego.

All three were buried in Seville: Hernando and his father in the southern city's cathedral, and Diego first in a chapel there and then moved outside town in the 1990s.

One important trump card is Hernando, who was born from an extramarital affair. Historians say they are sure the bones in Seville are his because they were never moved after his 1539 burial. Those of Columbus and his brother were moved, in Columbus's case repeatedly, leaving room for doubt as to where they ended up.

What's still missing is genetic material from the body buried in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, where a sprawling, cross-shaped monument called the Faro a Colon is also said to hold the remains of explorer, known in Spanish as Cristobal Colon.

Lead researcher Marcial Castro, one of the high school teachers and author of several papers on historical figures, said that DNA is critical.

"To finish the job well, we absolutely have to turn to the Dominican Republic," Castro told The Associated Press on Thursday from Seville.

He said the Caribbean country's government was waiting to hear his team's theory before deciding whether to open up its Faro a Colon.

Castro said the Spanish team has been in close contact with Dominican officials and is optimistic they will allow a sample of those bones to be taken for their DNA to be checked against those from Seville.

Asked how sure the team was of its theory in the absence of those DNA strands, he said: "In this field, the subject of certainty is always relative."

Columbus died and was buried 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.

Three years later his remains were moved to a monastery on La Cartuja, next to Seville. In 1537, Maria de Rojas y Toledo, widow of another of Columbus' sons, Diego, sent 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 believed were Columbus' were shipped to Havana, Cuba, and then back to Seville when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898.

In 1877, however, workers digging in the Santo Domingo cathedral unearthed a leaden box containing bones and bearing the inscription, "Illustrious and distinguished male, don Cristobal Colon."

Saying these were the genuine remains, the Dominicans suggested the Spaniards must have taken the wrong body back in 1795, possibly taking the bones of son, Diego, by accident.

©MMIV, The Associated Press.