Box allegedly holding 500-year-old bones of Columbus
Emilio Morenatti  /  AP
An unidentified person points to the box that allegedly holds the 500-year-old bones of Christopher Columbus in Seville, Spain, in this June 2, 2003 file photo.
updated 10/1/2004 10:06:17 PM ET 2004-10-02T02:06:17

Researchers studying DNA from 500-year-old bone slivers said Friday that preliminary data suggests Christopher Columbus might be buried in Spain, rather than in a rival tomb in the Dominican Republic -- but for now they cannot be sure.

The team insisted it had reached no conclusion and more research was needed. But it said some DNA samples taken from bones that Spain says are the explorer's matched DNA from a body widely believed to be that of his brother, Diego.

Both were unearthed in Seville over the past two years as part of a pioneering experiment to settle a 100-year-old dispute over whether Columbus is buried in Spain or the Dominican Republic. Both boast ornate graves that purport to hold his remains.

But DNA degrades over time, and much of the genetic material the Spanish team analyzed is in awful shape.

"It is degraded, it is contaminated and we don't have much of it," forensic geneticist Jose Antonio Lorente said.

Eighty percent of the samples taken are indecipherable so far, but 20 percent matches, suggesting Spain might have the right corpse.

New genetic techniques are needed to salvage the other 80 percent.

"This is like halftime at a soccer game with the score 1-0. Do you know just because of that who is going to win? No, you don't," said Lorente, director of the genetics lab at the University of Granada.

Besides Lorente, the research team included two high school teachers who do historical research and a forensic anthropologist.

They dug up and extracted DNA material from three sets of bones in Seville: the one Spain claims came from Columbus, one historians are certain belong to one of his sons, Hernando, and one researchers believe is Diego.

One trump card was Hernando, born of an extramarital affair. Historians say they are sure the bones in Seville are his because his remains were never moved after his 1539 burial.

Those of Christopher Columbus and his brother were moved -- repeatedly in Christopher's case.

The research team found Hernando's DNA in good shape.

Still, there was a problem: Siblings share DNA from one part of the human cell; fathers and sons from another. But this kind is scarce and hard to extract.

So far, the purported Christopher Columbus remains have yielded none of the kind of DNA needed to check against Hernando's, Lorente said.

Also needed was genetic material from the body buried in the Dominican capital, Santo Domingo, where a sprawling, cross-shaped lighthouse called the Faro a Colon is also said to hold the remains of the explorer known in Spanish as Cristobal Colon.

"It is very important to analyze the remains in the Dominican Republic to see if they coincide or not," Marcial Castro, the project's lead historian, told The Associated Press.

Dominican Republic awaiting more data
In the Dominican Republic, Deputy Secretary of Culture Sulamita Puig said her government would not decide whether to open the urn containing the bones until it receives Spain's report next week.

"We had hoped for more definitive results in Spain," Puig said. "Everything points to him being here. We believe he's here but if we don't have him, we should also know that, too."

The Dominican government would have to give permission to open the bronze urn containing the bones. The Archbishop of Santo Domingo, Cardinal Nicolas de Jesus Lopez, holds the sole key to the urn and likely would influence any decision, officials said.

Christopher Columbus died and was buried in Valladolid, Spain, on May 20, 1506. Three years later his remains were moved to a monastery on La Cartuja, next to Seville.

In 1537, Maria de Rojas y Toledo, widow of Christopher Columbus' other son, Diego, sent the bones of her husband and his father to the cathedral in Santo Domingo for burial. There they lay until 1795, when Spain ceded Hispaniola to France and decided Christopher Columbus' remains should not fall into the hands of foreigners.

A set of remains that the Spaniards believed were Christopher Columbus' were shipped to Havana, Cuba, and then back to Seville when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898.

In 1877, workers digging in the Santo Domingo cathedral unearthed a leaden box containing bones and bearing the inscription, "Illustrious and distinguished male, don Cristobal Colon."

Claiming these are the genuine remains, the Dominicans say the Spaniards took the wrong body back in 1795.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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