DNA test to decide whether Columbus was buried in Spain or the Caribbean

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The Independent Online

A British scientific technique used to identify victims of the tsunami disaster is to help settle a long-standing dispute over the final resting place of Christopher Columbus.

A British scientific technique used to identify victims of the tsunami disaster is to help settle a long-standing dispute over the final resting place of Christopher Columbus.

The disagreement is between Spain and the Dominican Republic who both claim to have possession of the bones of arguably the world's greatest explorer.

In February the two governments agreed to allow a team of Spanish scientists, employing a DNA preservation technique developed in Britain, to begin their investigation into establishing the truth behind each of the claims.

A team of geneticists from Granada University is preparing to fly to the Dominican Republic to examine bones in a mausoleum in Santo Domingo, the capital, which are claimed to be those of the 15th-century explorer. Spain insists that Columbus's remains lie in Seville Cathedral.

Professor Jose Lorente, who will lead the team, told The Independent that they will take DNA samples from Christopher Columbus's son and brother and try to match them with both sets of remains.

Crucial to the investigation, said Professor Lorente, was the British company Whatman PLC which has developed a special paper used in the extraction, stabilisation and storage of DNA. Professor Lorente said: "We are using a technology called 'FTA paper' for the collection and transportation of samples and in the extraction and conservation of the DNA with the best results, which is helping us speed up the investigation. I think this could be quite important for British people, who are proud of their companies and of their international impact."

Whatman paper was also used in the identification of the victims of the tsunami disaster, which claimed the lives of about 220,000 people in south Asia in December last year.

The island of Hispaniola - of which the Dominican Republic is part - became Spain's bridgehead to the New World after it was discovered by Columbus in 1492. When Columbus died in 1506, his remains were to be buried in America, according to his will.

But no church of sufficient stature existed there at that time, so the explorer was buried in the Spanish city of Valladolid.

Eventually, in 1537, his remains were sent for reburial in Santo Domingo. In 1795 France seized the entire island. Determined not to let such a valuable relic fall into enemy hands, the retreating Spanish took the bones to Cuba. They were eventually placed in a crypt in Seville in 1898.

Dominican Republic historians claim that the Spanish were either duped into taking the wrong body or had too little time to carry out their rescue plan properly. Their claim is based on the discovery in 1877 of a lead casket beneath Santo Domingo Cathedral bearing the inscription: "The illustrious and distinguished male Don Cristobal Colon" - the Spanish name for Columbus.

The Whatman procedure is important because it means DNA can be stored simply for more than 20 years without any need for freezing the samples.

Professor Lorente is also liaising with Dr Peter Gill of Forensic Science Service in Britain, who is involved in other important historical DNA cases including the identification of the murdered family of the Russian tzar Nicholas II. But Dr Gill has not been formerly instructed.

The government of the Dominican Republic gave the Spanish team permission to travel to Santo Domingo and carry out the tests on 14 and 15 February, but without warning postponed the visit. Professor Lorente said: "We are waiting to agree on a new date. The government is willing to find the truth, but it seems that there are radical groups in the Dominican Republic who fear an investigation."

Whatman was established in 1740 with a small, country-based English mill making fine, handcrafted paper. Since then, the company has evolved into an international separations technology business with offices and locations around the globe.

Whatman paper became enormously popular with leading artists such as J M W Turner, and the quality and durability of English papers, including those made by Whatman, gave the English watercolour school a 50-year advantage over European artists. At the end of the 18th century, the poet William Blake used Whatman paper for four of his illustrated books, the public being informed that these were printed on "the most beautiful wove paper that could be procured".

Throughout history, heads of state and world leaders have shown a particular penchant for Whatman paper. Napoleon sat for five hours on the bleak island of St Helena writing his long and detailed will on Whatman paper only three weeks before his death in 1821. George Washington signed many state documents on Whatman paper. Queen Victoria chose it for her personal correspondence. in the 1930s, Soviet leaders used Whatman paper to publish their five-year plan for the future of the USSR, while the peace treaty with Japan was signed on Whatman paper at the close of the Second World War.

Today Whatman is used to help resolve miscarriages of justice as well providing a paper DNA database to replace the freezing technology.

Professor Lorente now hopes to reveal the truth about Columbus, but since the tomb in Seville contains only a fifth of a skeleton, it is possible both countries' claims could be justified.

The great explorer

Genevieve Roberts

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa in Italy in 1451, the son of a wool merchant and weaver.

He sailed across the Atlantic in 1492, under the Spanish Castilian flag, hoping to find a route to India. He believed the Earth was a relatively small sphere.

Although he was not the first to reach the Americas, his explorations inaugurated permanent contact between the New and Old Worlds. He made four trips to the Caribbean and South America between 1492 and 1504. He landed in the Bahamas and later explored much of the Caribbean, including the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, as well as the coasts of Central and South America.

He died in 1506, having never reached the present-day United States, although the US celebrates Columbus Day on 12 October each year.