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Dominicans agree to open Columbus tomb

Spanish researchers say they’ve won permission to open a tomb in the Dominican Republic purported to hold the remains of Christopher Columbus.
Spanish experts say this box in Seville contains the 500-year-old bones of explorer Christopher Columbus. But another box, found in Santo Domingo in 1877, was also labeled as containing Columbus' remains. Scientists hope DNA testing can shed light on the century-old controversy.Emilio Morenatti / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Spanish researchers said Monday they’ve won permission to open a tomb in the Dominican Republic purported to hold remains of Christopher Columbus, edging closer to solving a century-old mystery over whether those bones or a rival set in Spain are the real thing.

Two high-school teachers from Seville and a leading Spanish forensic geneticist have been testing 500-year-old bone slivers for more than two years to try to pinpoint the final resting place of the explorer who arrived in the New World by accident in 1492 on an expedition chartered by Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel.

During a visit to the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo on Feb. 14-15, the team will watch the opening of the tomb, housed in a sprawling monument to Columbus, and examine the condition of the bones inside, said Marcial Castro, one of the teachers.

Will DNA be tested?
The team will then recommend to the Dominican government whether the bones are in good enough shape to extract DNA samples. If the genetic material is intact and the Dominican government approves, the DNA would then be cross-checked against samples from Columbus relatives buried in Seville, along with remains in a cathedral in Seville that Spain says are those of Columbus himself.

“This is a big step by the Dominican government,” Castro told The Associated Press from Seville on Monday. “A hugely important one.”

He cautioned, however, that for now the team has permission only to examine the bones visually — not glean a DNA sample, which might provide the last missing piece of the puzzle.

The problem is that the double helix that provides the blueprint for life degrades over time, just as bones do. As soon as the team sees the bones in Santo Domingo, they’ll have a good idea what they are up against.

“Just by looking at a bone a geneticist knows the probability that it contains usable DNA,” Castro said.

He said the Dominican deputy culture minister, Sulamita Puig, gave the go-ahead to the Spanish team in a fax on Friday.

Century-old dispute
The dispute over which set of remains are authentic has simmered for more than 100 years.

Castro’s team has examined DNA from the bones in Seville along with DNA from remains widely believed to be those of Columbus’ brother Diego and from bones known to belong to Columbus’ son Hernando. The latter two sets are also in Seville.

Cross-checking of these three samples has proved inconclusive because of the deteriorated state of the DNA. So the team needed access to the bones in Santo Domingo.

Columbus was buried in the northern Spanish city of Valladolid, where he died on May 20, 1506. He had asked to be buried in the Americas, but no church of sufficient stature existed there. 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 another of Columbus’ sons, Diego, sent the bones of her husband and his father to the cathedral in Santo Domingo for burial. They remained there until 1795, when Spain ceded the island of Hispaniola to France and decided Columbus’ remains should not fall into the hands of foreigners. Hispaniola comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

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

In 1877, however, workers digging in the Santo Domingo cathedral unearthed a leaden box containing bones and bearing the inscription, “Illustrious and distinguished male, Christopher Columbus.”

The Dominicans say these are the genuine remains and the Spaniards took the wrong body with them back in 1795.