March 10, 2006

Columbus mystery nearly solved 500 yrs after death

By Phil Stewart

ROME (Reuters) - Nearly 500 years after the death of
Christopher Columbus, a team of genetic researchers are using
DNA to solve two nagging mysteries: Where was the explorer
really born? And where the devil are his bones?

Debate about origins and final resting place of Columbus
has raged for over a century, with historians questioning the
traditional theory that he hails from Genoa, Italy. Some say he
was a Spanish Jew, a Greek, a Basque or Portuguese.

Even the location of his remains is the subject of
controversy. The Dominican Republic and Spain both stake claims
as the final resting place of Columbus, who died in May, 1506.

The Spanish-led research team, which includes Italians,
Americans and Germans, sampled DNA from the known remains from
Columbus' brother and son, and then compared them to fragments
attributed to Columbus in Seville.

Although the official announcement is expected later this
year, Italian researchers say they are confident based on the
evidence gathered so far that Columbus' supposed remains in
Seville are likely authentic.

"We have already started all of the analyses on a molecular
level and we have good indications that the remains in Seville
are effectively those of Christopher," said Olga Rickards, head
of the team at Rome's Tor Vergata University laboratory.

If confirmed, it could lay to rest a dispute dating back to
1877, when Dominican workers found a lead casket buried behind
the altar in Santo Domingo's cathedral containing a collection
of bone fragments the country says belong to Columbus.

The bones should have left the island for Cuba in 1795 and
then been sent along Spain a century later.

But the casket was inscribed with the words "Illustrious
and distinguished male, Don Cristobal Colon" - the Spanish
rendering of Christopher Columbus.

"Nobody knows (about the Dominican remains) ... because
they haven't yet allowed DNA analysis," Rickards told Reuters.


Little is known about the early life of Columbus, the
reputed son of a weaver in Genoa who would later change the
world by accidentally stumbling upon the Americas in 1492.

With so many different theories about his origin, the DNA
researchers hope to settle the matter once and for all by
obtaining genetic samples from Europeans with the name

In Italy, the researchers sent letters to modern-day
"Colombo" men asking them to use cotton swabs to sample saliva
from inside their mouths.

"We sent out 250 letters ... and we have already received
16 positive responses," Rickards told Reuters.

The Spanish had sampled less than 150 people, she said.

"If we're lucky, we might have a result by May, which is
the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' death," she

Genoa's mayor, Giuseppe Pericu, joked to a newspaper that
Columbus would wind up being "Genovese" -- one way or another.

"If it turns out that Columbus wasn't Genovese, we'll make
him an honorary citizen," he said.