This Europe: At last, DNA may reveal the truth of Columbus tomb

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The Independent Online

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 solve it."

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 Diego's widow.

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."