DNA Tests on Christopher Columbus' bones, on his relatives and on Genoese and Catalan claimants

DNA Tests on Christopher Columbus

Since Christopher Columbus died on May 20, 1506, there has been a suspicion that Columbus was not, as widely thought, the son of Domenico Colombo, a wool weaver and innkeeper from the northern Italian port of Genoa, but perhaps someone else. Columbus roots have now been examined by modern forensic techniques.

The Spanish government has paid for DNA testing. A team of 20 scientists from Spain, Italy, Germany and the United States, led by Josi Antonio Lorente Acosta, a Spanish scientist, has been analysing a pea-sized sample of Columbus' DNA drawn from his tomb in Seville in 2003. Dr .Lorente is a former instructor at the FBI academy whose work has been instrumental in identifying victims of Spanish Civil War atrocities.

Dr. Antonio Lorente of the University of Granada in Spain is attempting to compare the DNA from three sets of remains (Christopher, son Fernando, brother Diego) to see if he can prove that this is Columbus. Lorente's DNA samples are expected to prove where Columbus' remains really reside today.

Lorente's original idea was to examine purported Columbus remains in Seville, Spain, and at the Faro a Colon monument in the Dominican Republic to find out where Columbus was actually buried. Lorente sought to compare DNA in both places with the DNA from Columbus' son and from his brother.

However the remains from Seville were perhaps not large enough to provide conclusive DNA samples, and the Dominican government refused to let the team examine the bones there.

Annunciada Colon, Columbus' direct descendent, handed over the key to a burial chest, disinterred from the Cathedral in Seville, Spain. This chest is believed to contain Columbus' bones, but there is some doubt that these may not be Columbus' bones at all, and that his bones may be in the Dominican Republic. Columbus' place of burial is a politically sensitive subject, because both Spain and the Dominican Republic claim to have his remains. Moreover his bones have been moved so many times that there is genuine doubt as to where they have ended up. Lorente does not dismiss the possibility that Columbus' bones could actually be divided between Spain and the Dominican Republic, meaning the explorer rests in both countries

The bones thought to be those of Christopher Columbus have deteriorated so much, they only provide fragmentary genetic evidence. Those believed to belong to Diego are not in much better shape, but Hernando's bones have been relatively well preserved, Lorente said in a telephone interview.

Professor Olga Rickards, a molecular biologist from Tor Vergata University in Rome, said the next step was to compare those samples with hundreds of people now living in Spain, France and Italy with the surname Columbus, Colombo, Colomb, Colom, or Coulom. Modern-day Columbuses have been sent a cotton bud, and instructions to swab out their mouths. Miss Rickards said the results would take a month or two. Only men are being tested, because researchers are focusing on the Y chromosome, which determines male sex.

"We'll get something, but it will be complicated," Lorente said in a telephone interview from his University of Granada office. "The trick is to differentiate between the Columbuses from different places -- and there's no guarantee."

"So far, the evidence indicates that the man to whom those bones belonged was related to Hernando and Diego on the maternal side," Lorente said. "There are rarely absolute certainties in science, but we expect to reach conclusions with a high degree of probability."

What is known is that Columbus had red hair, freckles and was around six feet tall, a giant in his day. He had two sons.

AP Report 20 May 2006

A forensic team led by Spanish geneticist Jose Antonio Lorente has compared DNA from bone fragments that Spain says are from the explorer, and are buried in a cathedral in Seville, with DNA from remains that are known to be from Columbus' brother Diego, who is also buried in the southern Spanish city.

"There is absolute matchup between the mitochondrial DNA we have studied from Columbus' brother and Christopher Columbus," said Marcial Castro, a Seville-area historian and high school teacher who is the mastermind behind the project, which began in 2002. Mitochondria are cell components rich in DNA.

Castro and his research colleagues have been trying in vain for years to convince the Dominican Republic to open up an ornate lighthouse monument in the capital Santo Domingo that it says holds the remains of the explorer. Juan Bautista Mieses, the director of the Columbus Lighthouse, a cross-shaped building several blocks long, dismissed the researchers' findings and insisted Friday that Columbus was indeed buried in the Dominican Republic. "The remains have never left Dominican territory," Bautista said.

Castro stressed in an interview that, although his team is convinced the bones in Seville are from Columbus, this does not necessarily mean the ones in Santo Domingo are not. Columbus' body was moved several times after his death and the tomb in Santo Domingo might conceivably also hold part of the right body. "We don't know what is in there," Castro said.

Castro says the team is now focusing their DNA tools on another Columbus mystery: his country of origin. Traditional theory says he was from Genoa, Italy, but another line of argument says Columbus was actually from the Catalonia region of northeast Spain.

One piece of evidence supporting this latter idea is that when Columbus wrote back from the New World in Spanish, not Italian, he used words and phrases that reflected influence from the Catalan language, Castro said.

The new team has now collected DNA samples from more than 350 men in Catalonia whose last name is Colom, the Catalan way of saying Columbus, and from 80 in Italy whose last name is Colombo. The idea is to compare the genetic material with DNA from another authenticated Columbus relative, his son Hernando, who is buried in Seville. In this case, another kind of DNA is focused on genetic material from the y-chromosome, which men receive only from their fathers.

DNA from y-chromosomes is much more scarce than the mitochondrial kind and deteriorates more rapidly. The team is using Hernando's because that of his alleged father is in bad shape. Lorente and company want to see if the DNA pattern in Columbus' y-chromosome still shows up in men in either Catalonia or Italy, which would suggest he is from one place or the other, Castro said. It is not known when the results of this second study will be available because the data from Italy is still scant. "The people whose last name is Colombo are cooperating less than the Coloms in Spain," he said.

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