The Search For Columbus

An unidentified person opens a door in an ornate tomb in the cathedral in Seville, southern Spain, Monday June 2, 2003, where a medal box allegedly contains the bones of Christopher Columbus. AP

A chest containing the supposed remains of Christopher Columbus was exhumed Monday for DNA and other tests to determine whether the bones are really those of the famed explorer.

The test aims to settle a long debate over where Columbus is buried: in Spain's Seville Cathedral or in a sprawling monument in the Dominican Republic's capital, Santo Domingo.

In the presence of two descendants of Columbus — Jaime and Anunicada Colon de Carvajal — researchers removed two boxes from an ornate tomb at the cathedral in the southern city of Seville. One box is believed to hold the explorer's bones; the other is known to hold those of his son Hernando.

Another box, thought to contain the bones of Columbus' brother Diego, was exhumed close to Seville. All three were taken across southern Spain, with a police escort, to the University of Granada.

"This is possibly the first time the three ever traveled together," joked Marcial Castro, the researcher who launched the project.

In Granada, experts will conduct an array of tests — including DNA analysis — to find out if the two sets of remains in question are related to those of Hernando, whose identity is certain.

Castro says he believes the true bones are in Santo Domingo but adds, "No historian in the world has conclusive proof of where Columbus is buried. That's what we're trying to find out."

Castro said the exhumation Monday was tense.

"We thought we might just find a pile of dust in the box," he said. "But there were plenty of bones for the scientists to work off."

The results of the tests will not be known for several months.

Researchers have asked to exhume the supposed remains in Santo Domingo as well, but Dominican authorities are waiting to see the outcome of the Spanish tests, Castro said.

All three sets of remains will be returned to their resting places Friday, he said.

Columbus died and was buried in the Spanish city of Valladolid on May 20, 1506, although he had asked to be buried in the Americas.

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. There they lay until 1795, when Spain ceded the island to France but decided Columbus' remains should not fall into the hands of foreigners.

So a set of remains that the Spaniards believed were Columbus' were shipped first to Havana and then to Seville when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898.

However, 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" — as Columbus is called in Spanish — thus sparking the controversy.
  • Lauren Johnston

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