The mysteries inside Columbus' casket

MADRID — Controversy and Christopher Columbus go hand in hand — but the disputes extend beyond his legacy. Countries are even bickering over his physical remains.

Wednesday marks the 503rd anniversary of the explorer's death and the continuation of a century-old disagreement between Spain and the Dominican Republic over which country is in possession of his real bones. A Spanish team of investigators hopes that this year further scientific analysis will bear out its claims.

Everyone agrees that after Columbus died in the northern Spanish city of Valladolid, his family eventually followed the explorer’s wish and sent his remains to the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the now-Dominican Republic for burial. The question is who found his real casket centuries later.

When the Spaniards abandoned the island of Hispaniola to the French in 1795, they exhumed what they thought to be Columbus' remains to keep them safe. Spanish researchers believe the original lead box containing Columbus deteriorated significantly while resting in the humid and earthquake-plagued Dominican Republic. Supporters of the Spanish claim say those remaining lead fragments were collected with the bones of Columbus and surrounding materials and put into a new lead box, gilded in gold, that the Spanish took with them when they left the island.

In 1877, after uncovering their own box of bones, with the name Christopher Columbus inscribed on it, the Dominicans said the Spaniards had recovered the wrong bones. The Spanish box was in Cuba by then, and eventually was returned to Spain and housed in the tomb that bears Columbus’ name in Seville.

Spain's bones remained undisturbed until 2003, when scientists convinced custodians that modern research techniques could resolve some of the mysteries surrounding the explorer.

“You don’t expect to find so much trash," said scientist Rafael Delgado, recalling his first look at the contents of the box thought by most Spaniards to contain the explorer’s remains. "I certainly didn’t. But you begin to understand it when put in historical context.”

Delgado leads a team of specialists in soil genesis at the University of Granada. While DNA experts at the same university, led by Jose Antonio Lorente, concentrated on the bone fragments made available for research following the 2003 exhumation, Delgado’s group identified a shopping list of other materials from inside the same box. The materials included gold and silver threads, coal, seeds, mollusc shells, small rodent bones, insects, quartz, mortar and lead fragments. He believes each has a story to tell.

“We’ve been partially resolving things bit by bit,” he added with caution.

A lead pellet was this team’s first hard evidence that the remains in the box belonged to Christopher Columbus and not his son Diego, as some theories suggested.

“Diego was a courtesan, but his father was a corsair — a legitimized thief at sea. The records show he participated in at least one battle, so it is not at all surprising that ammunition shot from a firearm would show up amid his remains,” said Marcial Castro, a Spanish historian spearheading investigations into the true story of Christopher Columbus. “But there is no written record of him ever suffering an injury,” he interjected. “Every apparent answer about Columbus brings up new questions.”

Determining the origin of the fragments from the first lead box is a piece of the puzzle Delgado’s team is fitting together. They will study the isotopes of unearthed lead pieces to try to match them to mines in Spain. Since Columbus died in Valladolid, lead coming from mines in that area would be another indicator of the authenticity of the Spanish claim.

Modern science cannot provide irrefutable DNA evidence of the veracity of Spain's claims, as only 15 percent of the bone mass remained when researchers opened the Seville tomb. (By comparison, Castro said anthropologists report that about 40 percent of the bone mass in the Dominican Republic casket is left — deteriorating under lock and key.)

But the study did find a 95 percent likelihood that the bones belong to Christopher Columbus, intensifying interest in reading the story contained in the loose materials found with those bones.

“The remains diminish with time,” observed Delgado. “Dust to dust as the Gospel says.”

And those that don’t can be treasured relics. Spaniards found the bones of Columbus’ brother, Diego, intact when they exhumed his remains in 1950. But Castro said the head disappeared shortly after transporting the skeleton to Seville for study.

“Bones disappear for many reasons. What’s interesting is that there is no written record that bones of Christopher Columbus were stolen,” he said, referring to the fact that it does not appear that anyone disturbed or looted parts of the remains for potential profit.

Conjecture is an inevitable part of an investigation that Santo Domingo authorities have refused to collaborate with. Castro said they now keep their Columbus bones tightly secured and have left the cardinal of the Dominican Republic to determine if the remains should be disturbed for research. The cardinal has shown no interest in stirring the convictions of the flocks who crowd the cross-shaped lighthouse-mausoleum built on the site where the bones are securely stored.

Written testimony from Christopher Columbus’ son Diego says his father wanted to be buried in America. This could oblige Spain to return its Columbus remains to the Dominican Republic if researchers demonstrate irrefutably that the Seville remains are his.

Castro chuckled at the thought, then added, “The Dominicans would have to let us study their Columbus remains first.”

And that appears unlikely as decision-makers in both countries seem content to keep this dispute in the laboratory.

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