08 October 2007

Columbus: The Nina, The Pinta & The DNA

Amy Harmon, who writes on DNA and genetic issues for the New York Times, has today written a timely Columbus story, the anniversary of the explorer's first landfall in the Bahamas.

We all know the rhyme: In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue ... Besides the fact that he left on Tisha b'Av, and a number of his crew were Conversos including his interpreter (who knew Hebrew), and they had no priest with them, there are many tantalizing clues in the stories swirling around him, including Hebrew calligraphy on his letters.

However, schoolchildren, writes Harmon, are not generally told he might have been born out of wedlock to a Portuguese prince, or been a Jew whose parents converted to escape the Spanish Inquisition, or a rebel in medieval Catalonia.

Five centuries after Columbus' visit to the New World, DNA meets the Age of Discovery.

Spanish geneticist Dr. Jose A. Lorente extracted genetic material in 2004 from a Seville cache of Columbus’s bones to settle a dispute about his burial place. Since then, historians, officials and possible relatives are asking for the genetic version of the school rhyme.

Not much is known about Columbus' origins; he may have purposely hidden his roots.

Some believe he was from Genoa; he kept books in Catalan and his handwriting, say some experts, shows a Catalonian style; his wife was a Portuguese noblewoman; he wrote in Castilian; and he decorated some letters with Hebrew acronyms.

For comparison, hundreds of Spaniards, Italians and some Frenchmen have taken cheek swabs.

Mr. Colom and Mr. Colombo are both “Columbus” in their native tongues. And along with their names, each inherited from his father a Y chromosome — a sliver of DNA passed exclusively from father to son — which would have been virtually unchanged since the 15th century. A Columbus match to either man’s Y chromosome would tie him to that paternal line’s Italian or Catalonian home.

“What I want to write is the final book on Columbus, and I will not be able to do it without science to settle this,” said Francesc Albardaner, who was seduced by the possibility that DNA — a tool whose answers are treated as indisputable fact in courtrooms and on TV shows — would endorse his deeply held belief in the Catalonian Columbus.

Mr. Albardaner, a Barcelona architect, took more than three months off work, called 2,000 Coloms and persuaded 225 of them to scrape their cheeks at his Center for Columbus Studies in Barcelona. The swabs along with 100 Colombos collected in Italy are being analyzed by Dr. Lorente at the University of Granada and scientists in Rome.

The Coloms from Catalunya and Colombos from Genoa are so closely related that it is hard to distinguish them with the standard Y-DNA test. The researcher is looking for more subtle mutations that would allow linking the explorer to a single group.

Lorente has been accused of covering up results that suggest Columbus was Jewish.

A retired CIA analyst Peter Dickson, whose book argues a heritage of French, Italian, Spanish and Jewish, asks if Lorent will continue to hide what scientists now now? Dr. Lorente says he will, and rumors are rife.

Albardaner still brings Columbus novices to the Historic Archive of Protocols in Barcelona, where they can hold a yellowed note from the 15th century filled with the calligraphic scrawl of the man he believes stumbled upon the Caribbean while looking for a western route to India.

For more, click here.

Since I will be in Barcelona next week, maybe I'll pay a visit to the Historic Archive there to see for myself the 15th century note.

The story sidebar includes a variety of additional links - in English, Catalan and Portuguese - for the various theories concerning Columbus' origins. Here are three:

*Was He Catalan? [English]
*Centre d'Estudis Colombins [Catalan]
*Jewish Theory [English]

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