Saturday, May 20, 2006

Gone, But Not Forgotten

[[S C I E N C E]] * Well, the release of this news could hardly have been better timed. On the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ death (May 20, 1506), scientists have confirmed that at least some of the Genoa-born explorer’s bones are buried in the Medieval Gothic cathedral in Seville, Spain. This discovery reopens the rivalry between Spain and the Dominican Republic, the latter of which claims that Columbus’ remains are in fact interred at the Columbus Lighthouse (Faro de Colón) in Santo Domingo. One of Columbus’ two brothers, Bartolomeo, founded Santo Domingo at the turn of the 16th century.

This study to determine where Columbus’ bones have been resting more or less in peace, ever since he died in the Spanish city of Valladolid, was devised in 2002 by Marcial Castro, a Seville teacher and historian. As the Associated Press reports, a “forensic team led by Spanish geneticist Jose Antonio Lorente compared DNA from bones buried in a cathedral in Seville with DNA from remains known to be from Columbus’ brother, Diego, who also is buried in the southern Spanish city.” Castro says, “There is absolute match-up between the mitochondrial DNA [cell components abundant in genetic material] we have studied from Columbus’ brother and Christopher Columbus.”

But Juan Bautista Mieses, the director of the Columbus Lighthouse, isn’t buying it. He contends that “[Columbus’] remains have never left Dominican territory.”

And he may be right. Even Castro concedes that both collections of bones could have originally belonged to the man who’s been credited (erroneously, of course, since native peoples populated the Americas in advance of Columbus’ arrival) with “discovering” the New World. As it turns out, the globetrotter got around, even in death. His mortal remains were moved a few times over the centuries, first from Spain to Santo Domingo, and then on to Havana, Cuba, and finally to Seville. The bones in what’s now the Dominican Republic may have been left behind during all that relocating. However, unless and until the Dominican authorities allow for DNA analysis of their bone fragments, “We don’t know what is in there,” Castro explains.

Sounds like a mission for some future explorer.

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