Image: Spanish tomb
Cristina Quicler  /  AP file
Tourists walk by the tomb of Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus in the Cathedral of Seville, Spain. Spanish researchers recently determined that Columbus' remains are indeed buried in the tomb, based on DNA results. Another Columbus tomb is located in the Dominican Republic, but DNA tests have not been conducted on the remains buried there.
By LiveScience Bad Medicine columnist
updated 10/10/2011 12:46:50 PM ET 2011-10-10T16:46:50

Monday is Columbus Day, time to buy appliances on sale and contemplate other things that have nothing to do with Christopher Columbus. So much of what we say about Columbus is either wholly untrue or greatly exaggerated.

Here are a few of the top offenders.

1. Columbus set out to prove the world was round.

If he did, he was about 2,000 years too late. Ancient Greek mathematicians had already proven that the earth was round, not flat.

Pythagoras in the sixth century B.C. was one of the originators of the idea. Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. provided the physical evidence, such as the shadow of the Earth on the moon and the curvature of the Earth known by all sailors approaching land. And by the third century B.C., Eratosthenes determined our planet's shape and circumference using basic geometry. In the second century, Claudius Ptolemy wrote the "Almagest," the mathematical and astronomical treatise on planetary shapes and motions, describing the spherical Earth. This text was well known throughout educated Europe in Columbus' time. [Related: Earth Is Flat in Many People's Minds]

Columbus, a self-taught man, greatly underestimated Earth's circumference. He also thought Europe was wider than it actually was and that Japan was farther from the coast of China than it really was. For these reasons, he figured he could reach Asia by going west, a concept that most of educated Europe at the time thought was daft — not because the earth was flat, but because Columbus' math was so wrong. Columbus, in effect, got lucky by bumping into land that, of course, wasn't Asia.

The Columbus flat-earth myth perhaps originated with Washington Irving's 1828 biography of Columbus; there's no mention of this before that. His crew wasn't nervous about falling off the earth.

2. Columbus discovered America.

Yes, let's ignore the fact that millions of humans already inhabited this land later to be called the Americas, having discovered it millennia before. And let's ignore that whole Leif Ericson voyage to Greenland and modern-day Canada around the year 1000. If Columbus discovered America, he himself didn't know. Until his death he claimed to have landed in Asia, even though most navigators knew he didn't. [Top 10 Intrepid Explorers]

What Columbus came across was the archipelago of the Bahamas and then the island later named Hispaniola, now split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On his subsequent voyages he went farther south, to Central and South America. He never got close to what is now called the United States.

So why does the United States celebrate the guy who thought he found a nifty new route to Asia and the lands described by Marco Polo? This is because the early United States was fighting with England, not Spain. John Cabot (a.k.a. Giovanni Cabot, another Italian) "discovered" Newfoundland in England's name around 1497 and paved the way for England's colonization of most of North America. So the American colonialists instead turned to Columbus as their hero, not England's Cabot. Hence we have the capital, Washington, D.C. — that's District of Columbia, not District of Cabot.

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3. Columbus introduced syphilis to Europe.

This is hotly debated. Syphilis was present in pre-Columbus America. Yet syphilis probably existed for millennia in Europe as well, but simply wasn't well understood. The ancient Greeks describe lesions rather similar to that from syphilis. Perhaps by coincidence, an outbreak of syphilis occurred in Naples in 1494 during a French invasion, just two years after Columbus' return. This sealed the connection.

But aside from descriptions of syphilis-like lesions by Hippocrates, many researchers believe that there was a syphilis outbreak in, of all places, a 13th-century Augustinian friary in the English port of Kingston upon Hull. This coastal city saw a continual influx of sailors from distant lands, and you know what sailors can do. Carbon dating and DNA analysis of bones from the friary support the theory of syphilis being a worldwide disease before Columbus' voyages.

4. Columbus died unknown in poverty.

Columbus wasn't a rich man when he died in Spain at age 54 in 1506. But he wasn't impoverished. He was living comfortably, economically speaking, in an apartment in Valladolid, Crown of Castile, in present-day Spain, albeit in pain from severe arthritis. Columbus had been arrested years prior on accusations of tyranny and brutality toward native peoples of the Americas. But he was released by King Ferdinand after six weeks in prison. He was subsequently denied most of the profits of his discoveries promised to him by Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

After his death, though, his family sued the royal crown, a famous lawsuit known as the Pleitos colombinos, or Columbian lawsuits, lasting nearly 20 years. Columbus' heirs ultimately secured significant amounts of property and other riches from the crown. Also, most European navigators understood by the end of the 15th century, before his death, that Columbus had discovered islands and a large land mass unknown to them.

5. Columbus did nothing significant.

With all this talk of a hapless Columbus accidentally "discovering" the New World, as well as the subsequent genocide of native cultures, it is easy to understand the current backlash against Columbus and the national holiday called Columbus Day, celebrated throughout North and South America. This isn't entirely fair.

While Columbus was wrong about most things, he did help establish knowledge about trade winds, namely the lower-latitude easterlies that blow toward the Caribbean and the higher-latitude westerlies that can blow a ship back to Western Europe. Also, while Columbus wasn't the first European to reach the Western Hemisphere, he was the first European to stay. His voyages directly initiated a permanent presence of Europeans in both North and South America.

News of the success of his first voyage spread like wildfire through Europe, setting the stage for an era of European conquest. One can argue whether the conquest was good or bad for humanity: that is, the spread of Christianity, rise of modernism, exploitation and annihilation of native cultures, and so on. But it is difficult to deny Columbus' direct role in quickly and radically changing the world.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

Explainer: Seven deep mysteries of history

  • Image: Amelia Earhart
    FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    What happened to Amelia Earhart?

    Amelia Earhart raised the spirits of Depression-era America as she soared into the aviation record books with feats of altitude, distance and endurance. The mood took a gloomy turn, however, when she and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during a much-heralded attempt to fly around the world. Their fate remains one of aviation's greatest unsolved mysteries.

    Theories abound: They ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. They were captured by the Japanese and executed. They survived, and Earhart lived out her life as a housewife in New Jersey.

    A prominent theory with tantalizing clues holds that they survived the crash landing and but perished as castaways on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the republic of Kiribati. An expedition to the island in 2010 recovered pieces of a pocket knife and a glass jar that may have belonged to the castaways. If DNA analyses on these and other items match Earhart's, the mystery may finally be resolved.

    Click ahead for six more stories of historical mysteries.

  • Where are Cleopatra and Mark Antony buried?

    Image: Kathleen Martinez, director of a Dominican-Egyptian archeological mission
    Orlando Barria  /  EPA

    Excavations underway at a temple near Alexandria, Egypt, may reveal the final resting place of the doomed lovers Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The Egyptian queen and Roman general committed suicide in 30 B.C. following their defeat in the battle of Actium for control of the Roman Empire. But where the lovers were buried is unknown.

    Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist, believes the lovers were put to rest in the temple of Taposiris Magna and launched a dig with a Dominican-led team to locate the tomb. "It my opinion, if this tomb is found, it will be one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century because of the love between Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and because of the sad story of their death," he told reporters during a tour of the temple.

    Dominican archaeologist Kathleen Martinez is shown here with an alabaster bust of Cleopatra that was found at the excavation site near Alexandria.

  • Where is Genghis Khan buried?

    Image: The foundation of a Genghis Khan's mausoleum.
    Japan-Mongol Joint Research Team via AP

    Genghis Khan united warring tribes in 1206 and became the leader of the Mongols, creating an empire that eventually stretched from China to Hungary. The famed warrior's tomb, however, has remained a mystery ever since his death in 1227.

    According to legend, his burial party killed anyone who saw the procession. The slaves and soldiers who attended the funeral were also killed. Horses then trampled evidence of the burial, and a river was diverted to flow over the grave, which is thought to lie somewhere near Genghis Khan's birthplace in Khentii Aimag.

    Expeditions to locate the tomb have been aborted due to concerns that the excavations would disturb the site and destroy the soul that serves as its protector. In 2004, archaeologists uncovered Genghis Khan's palace, shown here, and they suspect the tomb lies nearby.

  • Did the Donner family resort to cannibalism?

    Image: James F. Reed and Margret W. Keyes Reed
    AP

    The legend is a harrowing tale of survival: A group of pioneers headed for California in 1846 got stuck on a mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada and resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter. But the claims that they feasted on human flesh may have been exaggerated, based on an analysis of bones found in a hearth along Alder Creek, where at least some of the Donner Party passed the time.

    The analysis shored up accounts that the family dog, Uno, was eaten, as well as a steady supply of cattle, deer and horse. No human bones were found at the site. While cannibalism may have occurred, if it did, the bones were treated in a different way. Perhaps the bones were buried. Or perhaps they were placed on the hearth last and have since eroded, according to project scientist Gwen Robbins, a professor of biological anthropology at Appalachian State University.

    Donner Party survivors James Reed and his wife Margaret Reed are shown in this photo from the 1850s.

  • Where is Billy the Kid buried?

    Image: William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, circa 1880.
    Lincoln County Heritage Trust

    Legend holds that outlaw Billy the Kid was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881 and buried in Fort Sumner, N.M. A headstone marks his grave, but a controversy has roiled since the 1930s when an Arizona man named John Miller claimed that he was the legendary outlaw. Garrett, he said, shot the wrong man and lied about it. Matters became even more confused a few decades later when a Texan named "Brushy" Bill Roberts came forth and said he was the real Billy the Kid.

    An investigation aims to resolve the case by exhuming the body of Billy the Kid's mother and comparing her mitochondrial DNA to genetic material from the three men. But the investigation is controversial on several fronts. For one, the graves have been moved over the decades and nobody is certain the bodies and headstones match up. In addition, if the real Billy the Kid turns out to be buried in Texas or Arizona, it would kill off a legend that helps draw tourists to the New Mexico gravesite.

  • Christopher Columbus' remains in Spain?

    Image: Alleged tomb of Christopher Columbus, Cathedral of Seville
    Cristina Quicler  /  AP file

    In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue; after he died in 1509, his remains remained on the move. He was originally buried in the Spanish city of Valladolid, but his remains were shipped to the Caribbean island of Hispanola (modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1537, in accordance with his will. When the Spanish lost the territory to France in 1795, they shipped Columbus's remains to Cuba, where they stayed until the Spanish-American War prompted their return to Seville in 1898. The tomb is shown here.

    The Dominican Republic, however, says Columbus' remains never left Hispanola. In 1877, a box was uncovered in a Santo Domingo cathedral with an inscription identifying the remains as belonging to the "illustrious and distinguished male Cristobal Colon (Spanish for Christopher Columbus)."

    DNA analysis of bone fragments from the Seville remains and those of Columbus' brother Diego, also buried in the city, are a perfect match. When researchers announced those findings in 2006, they declared that the century-old dispute was resolved. But DNA from the Dominican remains has yet to be studied, leaving the case not quite fully shut.

  • DNA seals fate of Russian czar's kids

    Image: Nicholas II, Prince Alexei
    AP file

    Bolsheviks gunned down Russian Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their five children in 1918, but for 90 years the whereabouts of two of the children, Prince Alexei (heir to the Russian throne) and a daughter (Maria or Anastasia), remained unknown until 2008. That's when their bones were recovered from a grave near the rest of the Romanov family near Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, about 900 miles east of Moscow.

    The bones from the second grave were burned and drenched in sulfuric acid, presumably to conceal the victims' identities or conditions at death. But scientists were able to examine mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mother to children. They also matched up Y chromosome markers from Crown Prince Alexei and Czar Nicholas II.

    Czar Nicholas II, left, and the Crown Prince Alexei, are shown cutting wood in this photo, taken at a Siberian prison months before their murder in 1918.

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