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Home >> Sci-Edu
UPDATED: 08:16, May 12, 2006
International probe may reveal vital clues on explorer's origins
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As the world marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Christopher Columbus, the mysteries surrounding his birth and death his origin and the location of his tomb could be about to be resolved.

Scientists investigating DNA from bones half a millennium old and from people still alive are trying to determine whether Columbus was an Italian, Spaniard or Frenchman, and whether his remains lie buried in southern Spain or across the Atlantic in the Dominican Republic.

Both investigations are based on three sets of bones to which researchers gained unprecedented access in Seville in 2002 and 2003.

An ornate tomb in the cathedral may contain the bones of Columbus and is known to hold the remains of one of his sons, Hernando.

A third set of bones from Seville could have belonged to Columbus' younger brother, Diego.

The bones thought to be those of the great explorer are so deteriorated they only provide fragmentary genetic evidence, said Miguel Lorente, a member of a Spanish investigative team based in Granada University.

Those believed to belong to Diego are not in much better shape, but Hernando's bones have been relatively well preserved, Lorente said in a telephone interview.

Spanish scientists are collaborating with others in Italy, the United States and Germany.

Mystery surrounds the birth around 1451 of the admiral credited with "discovering" America, in 1492.

Christopher Columbus is usually presented as a wool weaver's son from the Italian port of Genoa, but other theories claim he was a Spanish aristocrat, a converted Jew, a French pirate and even the illegitimate son of Pope Innocent VIII.

Some believe he was Catalan, Basque, Portuguese, Greek, Corsican or even Swiss.

Genetic research could elucidate the enigma, with experts busy comparing DNA samples taken from Hernando's bones to that of possible male descendants who bear surnames like Colombo, Colon, Colomb or Coulomb in Italy, Spain and France.

Saliva samples have been taken from more than 200 people in Italy alone, says molecular anthropology professor Olga Rickards from Rome's Tor Vergata University.

"We are still collecting samples, as we are finding more people with Columbus-type surnames than we had originally expected," Rickards said.

Only men are being tested, because researchers are focusing on the Y chromosome, which determines maleness.

The results are not expected until September.

China Daily

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