Where is Columbus? DNA test request rejected

Dominican Navy soldiers provide security to the tomb of Christopher Columbus inside the "Faro a Colon" or "Columbus lighthouse" in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Authorities in Spain and the Dominican Republic both claim to have the remains of Columbus, a subject that historians have been debating for over 100 years.Andres Leighton / AP file

The Dominican government Monday refused a request from Spanish scientists to perform DNA testing on remains here purported to be those of Christopher Columbus.

Researchers studying genetic evidence from 500-year-old bone slivers said this month that preliminary data suggests Columbus might be buried in the Spanish city of Seville, though they said more testing was needed, especially in the Dominican Republic, to be certain.

The experiment’s goal was to settle more than a century of disagreement over where Columbus is buried. Spain and the Dominican Republic both boast ornate graves claiming to hold his remains.

The scientists have been petitioning the Dominican government to allow tests for two years.

Wait for better science
“It’s not worth it when we already know that the method they are using won’t give us clear results,” said Sulamita Puig, the Dominican Republic’s deputy culture secretary. “We are going to wait until for more scientific advancements in DNA” before allowing the tests.

Marcial Castro, one of the lead Spanish scientists, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that he believes “clarity and science will eventually triumph.”

For the tests in Spain, scientists dug up and extracted DNA material from bones some claim are from Columbus. They also cross-matched the remains with material taken from bones historians believe belong to his son Hernando and his brother Diego.

Tracing the history
Columbus died on May 20, 1506, and was buried in the northern Spanish city of Valladolid. He had asked family to bury him in the Americas, but there was no church of sufficient stature.

In 1537, Maria de Rojas y Toledo, widow of another of Columbus’ sons, Diego, sent the bones of her husband and his father to the cathedral in Santo Domingo for burial. They stayed there until 1795, when Spain ceded the island of Hispaniola to France and decided to move the bones so they didn’t fall into the hands of foreigners.

A set of remains that the Spaniards believed were Columbus’ were sent to Havana, Cuba, and then back to Seville when the Spanish-American War began in 1898.

But in 1877, workers digging in the Santo Domingo cathedral found a lead box containing bones with the inscription, “Illustrious and distinguished male, don Cristobal Colon.”

Claiming the box contained the genuine remains, the Dominicans say the Spaniards took the wrong body back in 1795.

Castro said his team would now invite the Dominican government to participate in an anthropological study to determine where Columbus is buried.