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Christopher Columbus may not be the Genoese we think he was. A Spanish geneticist, Dr. Jose A. Lorente, extracted genetic material from a cache of Columbus’s bones in Seville in order to settle a dispute about where he was buried, and has been beset ever since by amateur historians, government officials and self-styled “relatives” who want to determine the explorer’s origins.
Everyone concedes that little is known about Columbus’s origins. He apparently purposely obscured his past.
A Genoese Cristoforo Colombo did exist; archives record his birth and early life. But it is difficult to tie that man to the one who crossed the Atlantic in 1492. Snippets from Columbus’s life touch all around the southern European coast.
He kept books in Catalan and his handwriting, it is said, has a Catalonian flair. He married a Portuguese noblewoman. He wrote in Castilian. He decorated his letters with a Hebrew cartouche. There are many theories of his origins.
Genoese Theory: Columbus was born Cristoforo Columbo, the son of Domenico Colombo, a Genoese woolweaver. Evidence: There are dozens of documents in Genoa that detail the life of Cristoforo Colombo, including his activities in Portugal on behalf of Genovese merchants in the 1740s. Counterevidence: This Colombo may not have been the famous explorer; he was never referred to in any official documents. He wrote only in Latin and Castilian, even when corresponding with Italian friends. Analysis of Columbus’s remains suggests he was about 60 when he died in 1508, about five years older than the Genoese man would have been. DNA Twist: Scientists are comparing Columbus’s DNA to that from 100 men in Genoa and northwestern Italy whose last names are Colombo. Because Y-chromosome DNA is passed from fathers to sons, it often corresponds with surnames.
Catalan Theory: Columbus was born with the last name Colom in Catalonia. He changed his name to Critobal Colon to cover up his participation in a rebellion against Ferdinand’s father. Evidence: Columbus visited Barcelona after his first voyage, took many Catalonians on voyages, and possessed books in Catalan. His handwriting appears Catalonian, and his Castilian writing contains errors that suggest Catalan was his native language. He was called Colom in Castilian documents. Counterevidence:Columbus never said he was from Catalonia and never wrote in Catalan. The DNA Twist: Scientists are comparing Columbus’s DNA to that from 255 men living in eastern Spain whose last name is Colom.
Portuguese Theory: Columbus was Salvador Fernando Zarco, the son of a Portuguese prince. He was sent by the Portuguese monarchy to encourage Isabella and Ferdinand to divert resources to exploring the West, far from Portugal’s burgeoning empire in Asia. Evidence: Columbus married a Portuguese noblewoman, Filipa Moniz Perestrello, and visited Portuguese territories not open to foreigners. He named several New World discoveries after places in Portugal. Some linguists believe the grammatical mistakes in his writing are evidence that Portuguese was his native tongue. Counterevidence: No documents are known to exist linking Columbus to Portugal, and the Portuguese royal family never claimed him as their own. Contemporary Portuguese chroniclers of Columbus said he was Italian. He named new discoveries after places in Castile and Catalonia, too. The DNA Twist: The current Duke of Braganca and the Count of Ribeira Grande, two descendents of the Portuguese royal family, have supplied their DNA for comparison with the Columbuses.
Majorcan Theory: Columbus was born on the island of Majorca out of wedlock to Prince Carlos of Viana, step-brother of King Ferdinand. Evidence: A letter suggests the prince conceived a child in 1459, when he lived in Majorca, with Margalida Colom. This might have provided Columbus with the background required to marry into Portuguese nobility and could explain his access to Ferdinand and Isabella. Counterevidence: Columbus would have been born in 1460, which would have made him 46 at his death instead of the 60 suggested by forensic analysis of his bones. It has been recently suggested that the letter refers to a known mistress in Palermo with a different last name. The DNA Twist: The council president of Majorca is paying scientists to compare Columbus’s DNA to that from remains purported to be those of Prince Carlos. A match would prove paternity.
Jewish Theory: Columbus or his recent ancestors were Jewish and converted to avoid the Spanish Inquisition. Evidence: Many Jews converted or pretended to convert to Catholicism, to avoid the Inquisition. Columbus used Hebrew symbols and dates in some writing. In a will written late in life he asked that “one-half mark of silver” be given to a beggar “at the gate of the Jewish district” in Lisbon. Counterevidence: Many educated Catholic men were interested in Hebrew texts in the 15th century. Most Jews in Southern Europe at the time were Sephardic Jews of North African descent, but preliminary analysis of Columbus’s DNA suggests he was Caucasian. The DNA Twist: Certain genetic markers are strongly associated with Jewish ancestry. If they are found in Columbus’s DNA it would suggest that he or his recent ancestors were Jewish.
Other Theories: Columbus may have been the son of Pope Innocent VIII or the King of Poland. He may trace his roots to the Balaeric island of Ibiza, or the Mediterranean island of Corsica. He could be from Greece, or Norway. Or — for that matter — anywhere else that people have DNA.
sole source: NY Times article by Amy Harmon on 10/8/07.
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