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Who really sailed the ocean blue in 1492?

Spanish scholars are on a mission to demystify Christopher Columbus's life, long shrouded in a veil of mythic heroism.

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Genovese nobleman or Catalan pirate? Adventurous explorer or greedy tyrant? What if the Italian gentleman who discovered America was in fact a brutal torturer and slave owner? And what if he wasn't even Italian?

Schoolchildren may learn about a daring hero who proved the Earth wasn't flat, but because his biography is pocked with holes, Christopher Columbus is a figure around whom elaborate theories and enigmatic rumors have long circulated. This year, the 500th anniversary of his death, two Spanish scholars are working to clear up some of the mysteries.

José Antonio Lorente, a geneticist at the University of Granada, is attempting to resolve one of the greatest enigmas – the question of Columbus's origins. In 1927, Peruvian historian Luis Ulloa Cisneros claimed Columbus was from Catalonia – in what is today northwestern Spain – rather than from the Italian port city of Genoa.

Since then, theories have proliferated, some suggesting that Columbus was a Catalan nobleman who rebelled against King Ferdinand's father, King John II, by engaging in piracy on behalf of the French, and then hid his origins to win favor with the son. Others maintain that he was the illegitimate child of Prince Carlos de Viana, a Majorcan nobleman related to Ferdinand and Isabella. Still others suggest that Columbus was a Jew, whose family fled to Genoa to escape persecution.

A historian at the University of Seville asked Mr. Lorente (who had previously used genetic testing to determine that bones in the Cathedral of Seville belonged to Columbus's own illegitimate son), to help resolve the Catalan/Genovese issue.

Collecting saliva samples from hundreds of people in Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, Genoa, Valencia, and the south of France with the last name of Colón, Colom, or Columbo, Lorente is comparing their DNA with that taken from the bones of Columbus, his brother, and Prince Carlos de Viana. "This way, we can try to determine which population with the same last name as Columbus has the most genetic similarities and differences to him," says Lorente.

The study, results of which were supposed to be released last week to coincide with the Spanish celebration of Columbus Day, has been delayed due to the technological difficulties. "Right now, we haven't developed sufficient markers that can be applied to DNA that comes from bones," says Lorente. "We're working on improving it every day, but we can't say when we'll have results."


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