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Resting place? DNA testing seeks to determine whether Columbus's grave in Seville, Spain, holds the explorer's remains.

Looking to an Explorer's Bones for Answers

Nobody knows for sure where Christopher Columbus came from and where he was buried. But an international team of forensic experts hopes that science can end a half-millennium of speculation.

Historians believe that Columbus was initially buried in Spain after his death in 1506. But in 1537 the bones were reportedly shipped to the cathedral in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic, to honor his desire to spend eternity in the Americas. Some experts, however, believe that the remains were repatriated to Spain in 1899.

To try and solve the puzzle, forensic scientist José Lorente of the University of Granada teamed up earlier this month with colleagues from the Leipzig, Germany, based Max Planck Institute of Anthropology, several universities (such as the University of Rome) and the U.S. FBI biological research department in Quantico, Virginia. They're working to extract mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the bones of the explorer, a brother, and a son. The material came from three bodies interred at the Spanish Cathedral in Seville. Mitochondrial DNA is passed on from mother to son; if the remains are indeed the explorer's, Columbus's mtDNA should match that taken from his brother's bones. The team also hopes to extract DNA from the male-only Y chromosome, which could confirm the identities of Columbus and his son, although that testing is more technically challenging than mtDNA analysis.

Testing is expected to take several months. If the results don't match, Lorente will ask Dominican authorities to perform the same tests on the remains buried in the Santo Domingo Cathedral. The studies may also help settle a long-running dispute over Columbus's nationality. Italians contend that he was born in Genoa, but others claim Columbus was the illegitimate son of the Spanish Prince Carlos de Viana, whose bones underwent DNA testing last year.

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Background on Columbus and his travels