At last, DNA may reveal the truth of Columbus tomb
By Elizabeth Nash in Madrid
Scientists plan to exhume the remains of Christopher Columbus in
Seville Cathedral to make sure they are really his. They suspect the
body held aloft by four sculpted figures representing the ancient
kingdoms of Spain might actually be of his son Diego, removed from
the Dominican Republic centuries ago by mistake.
A team led by a forensic scientist at the University of Granada
proposes to compare the DNA with the remains of another son,
Fernando, who is also buried in Seville Cathedral. A positive result
would end 125 years of dispute over whether the man who
"discovered" America truly rests in the city from where he set sail in
1492, or in Santo Domingo, where he made his historic landfall in
the New World.
The idea was proposed by Marcial Castro Sanchez, a genealogist
and history teacher at a secondary school near Seville. He was
inspired by the work of the Oxford-based geneticist Brian Sykes on
DNA testing across generations to resolve unanswered historical
questions. "I realised this technique could be applied to Christopher
Columbus, so I went with 18 of my pupils to visit Jose Antonio
Lorete Acosta at his Laboratory of Genetic Identification at Granada
University, and he was delighted to help," Mr Castro said. "The
professor pondered the problem for years but hadn't known how to
Columbus died in the Spanish city of Valladolid in 1506, and his
body was buried first in Seville's Carthusian monastery, then
transferred to Santo Domingo Cathedral at the request of his son
There he remained until 1795, when the Caribbean island fell into
French hands and Spaniards excavated the tomb near the altar and
shipped the bones to Havana, a Spanish colony. Mr Castro says:
"Since Christopher was buried near Diego, it's possible the wrong
remains were removed."
Doubts arose in 1877 when builders replacing the paving slabs of
Santo Domingo Cathedral uncovered a lead box bearing the
inscription: "Illustrious and enlightened male Don Cristobal Colon."
It contained 41 bone fragments and a bullet possibly left in a wound
during the explorer's youth. Next to the tomb was a box inscribed
with the name of Luis, a grandson who died in Algeria. Some
experts say his remains never reached the Caribbean.
In 1898, when Cuba fell to the Americans, Spaniards again salvaged
Columbus's supposed remains and brought them to Seville
Cathedral, where his son Fernando also lies. An analysis of nuclear
DNA would establish connections between direct family members,
and analysis of mitocondrial DNA could prove links with maternal
descendants, of whom there is a sprawling family. Mr Castro said
they were trying to raise money for the project.
"Even if we found the remains weren't him, it wouldn't matter,
because his tomb would be just as important as a cenotaph in his
honour. There shouldn't be any difficulty about exhuming the
remains. After all, he's been dug up nine times already."