Thanks to the most advanced genetic technology available, one of the greatest historical enigmas of all time may be solved next October: where Christopher Columbus, the explorer credited with the discovery of America, was born. An investigation undertaken by Granada University, requiring the collaboration of laboratories in Granada, Florence, Rome, Texas and Mexico, will determine his place of birth based on a genetic analysis of the navigator’s bones and a comparison with those thought to belong to his family members. What the history books have long held to be true may soon have to be revised. “We are at the most decisive stage, after a long wait for the advanced genetic analysis technology that would guarantee the best chances of success,” say the researchers behind the project, which is called Columbus DNA: His True Identity.
Columbus died on May 20, 1506, in Valladolid, with his place of birth still not irrefutably established. José Antonio Lorente, professor of Legal and Forensic Medicine at the University of Granada, together with anthropologist Juan Carlos Álvarez Merino and historian Marcial Castro exhumed the remains of Columbus and his son Hernando in 2003 from a tomb in the Seville Cathedral. Given the tomb is on Spain’s cultural heritage list (BIC), it was a complex process. When finally some of the bones were exhumed, they were transferred to Granada University, together with those of Diego Columbus, the explorer’s brother, buried in La Cartuja-Pickman factory in Seville. Once at the university, they were kept in a fortified room. During that stage of the investigation, the family tie between the three sets of skeletal remains – the two brothers, Christopher and Diego, and Columbus’ son, Hernando – was confirmed.
The Dominican Republic, however, maintains that the navigator rests in the cathedral in Santo Domingo, in a coffin found in 1877 with the inscription “Christopher Columbus.” This claim is made due to the fact that the bodies of the explorer and his son were transferred from the Iberian peninsula in 1523 to Hispaniola – a territory that is today divided between the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic and the French-speaking Haiti – where Christopher Columbus wished to be buried. The bodies remained in the cathedral in Santo Domingo until 1793, when Spain ceded the Caribbean island to France. The coffins were then transported to the cathedral in Havana, Cuba, where they remained until Cuba gained independence in 1898. From there, they were sent back to Spain and placed in the Seville Cathedral, where the bodies have rested ever since in an impressive tomb crafted by Spanish artist Arturo Mélida. The researchers are now trying to get the government of the Dominican Republic to hand over the rest of the remains of what they presume to be Christopher Columbus for analysis.
The remains have been sent for analysis to be carried out by the university itself and different European and US laboratories. To avoid any suspicion of foul play should it be proved that the explorer was not from the Italian city of Genoa, as has generally been believed until now, Italy is also involved. The results will be made public in October in a documentary directed by Regis Francisco López, produced by Spain’s public broadcaster, RTVE, and Story Productions, the same producers who made last year’s documentary on the European-Berber origins of the Guanches, the indigenous people of Tenerife.
The theory most widely accepted by historians states that Columbus was born in Genoa in northern Italy in 1451 to Giovanni Colombus and Giovanna Fontanarrosa, a family of weavers. Various historical documents, such as his son Hernando Columbus’ will, confirm this. Doubts persist, however, since Columbus himself never wrote a word in Italian, using instead Valencian, Mallorcan, Galician and Portuguese. In fact, there are numerous theories that maintain that the explorer hid or falsified his origins either because he was a converted Jew or because of legal complications regarding his inheritance. Reputed historians have stated that he came from countries as diverse as Spain, Portugal, Croatia and Poland.
According to a statement from the researchers at Granada University, “this is the most ambitious scientific research yet on Columbus’ origins and compiles the work developed by the different theses that have emerged so far and that have possible genetic information to contrast. Valencia, Portugal, Galicia, Navarre and Mallorca will be some of the possibilities analyzed.”
Last week, international authors arrived in Granada to discuss their theories about Columbus’ origins and deliver the material they have collected so far, including documentary sources, historical records and even genetic remains to Professor Lorente. Francesc Albardaner i Llorens, member of the Catalan Society of Historical Studies, believes Columbus was born in Valencia into a family of converted Jews. According to this historian, Columbus’ father was an emigrant who arrived in Valencia from Liguria in Italy and married a woman from Valencia. “Due to being the son of a mixed marriage, he could present himself as Genoese, as well as a naturalized subject of the Crown of Aragon,” says Albardaner i Llorens.
Fernando Branco, a professor at Lisbon University, believes that the explorer was Portuguese. According to Branco, an honorary member of the Academy of Portuguese History, Columbus’s real name was Pedro Ataíde and he was a corsair or privateer who fled to Castile in 1485. Meanwhile, historians José and Antonio Mattos e Silva maintain that he was the bastard son of the Portuguese princess, Leonor de Aviz. A third theory involving Portugal is proposed by the researcher Carlos Evaristo, who insists that, in reality, Columbus was the son of Ferdinand, the duke of Visue and Beja, and Isabel Gonçalves, a woman of Jewish descent. According to this version, Columbus would have been called Salvador Fernandes Zarco, and been born in the town of Cuba, in Portugal’s Alentejo region. As an adult, he became a captain and spied on Castile on behalf of King John II of Portugal. The author describes Columbus as a kind of “007 agent” for Spain’s neighbor.
On the other hand, the doctor José Mari Ercilla claims that the explorer was born in the Spanish region of Navarre, in the town of Ainza, and that he carried the HLA-B27 antigen, characteristic of the Cagots, a marginalized minority living between Spain and France. He says that only in Navarre and America are there towns called Ainza. “This name has not existed in any other part of the world except in America after it was discovered by Columbus. It’s a place name that only someone born there could know because the Columbus family, according to the Navarre royal censuses, inhabited this village of only five houses.”
Meanwhile, Gabriel Verd Martorell, president of the Christopher Columbus Cultural Association, maintains that Columbus was the son of Charles, prince of Viana, who was the brother of Ferdinand II of Aragón, and of Margalida Colom from Mallorca. According to this historian, Columbus was born in Felanitx in Mallorca, in 1460, and named an island he discovered in 1498 off the Venezuelan coast Margarita as a tribute to his mother.
However, Eduardo Esteban Meruéndano, president of the Galician Christopher Columbus Association, Celso García de la Riega, believes Columbus hailed from Galicia. But Alfonso C. Sanz Núñez, associate professor in the Department of Regional Geographic Analysis at Madrid’s Complutense University, claims that the explorer was born in Espinosa de Henares in Guadalajara on June 18, 1435, and is buried in Cogulludo in Guadalajara. He says Columbus was the grandson of Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, an admiral of Castile and senior officer of the king in the navy, and the son of Aldonza de Mendoza, duchess of Arjona. According to Sanz Núñez, when his mother died, she left him 13,000 maravedies – old Spanish currency, one of which would be equivalent to around €16 today – but this inheritance was stolen by his uncle, the marquis of Santillana. Given his lineage, the Catholic Monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand I named Columbus “Admiral of the Ocean Sea.”
Clearly, there are still many doubts about Columbus’s true origins.
English version by Heather Galloway.
Odyssey Marine Exploration: Spanish court shelves case against US treasure hunters that looted sunken treasure | USA
The history of the Spanish frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes includes two grievances and one victory. The first of the former was when the British Navy sunk it and its 275 crew members on October 5, 1804, off Portugal’s Algarve coast. The second offense came in May 2007, when the US treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration scooped up its cargo of 500,000 silver and gold coins from the shipwreck at the bottom of the sea.
Triumph came when the US justice system confirmed that the treasure belonged to Spain, in a ruling released in February 2012. But there was one more affront to come: a Spanish court has just definitively shelved a case into alleged crimes committed by the US treasure hunters as they were removing the coins. After a tortuous 14-year investigation, a courtroom in Cádiz has been left with no option but to let the probe die, albeit admitting its “bafflement” and “anger” over what it considers “unusual proceedings.”
At the same time as the legal process began in Florida to determine who was the rightful owner of the rescued treasure, Odyssey or Spain, a court in La Línea de la Concepción, in the southwestern Spanish province of Cádiz, began investigating whether the then-CEO of Odyssey Marine Exploration, Greg Stemm, and his team had committed any criminal offenses when they removed the haul from the shipwreck. Among the potential crimes were damaging an archeological site and smuggling.
The fact that the 500,000 pieces of silver and gold were returned to Spain in February 2012 – nearly 17 tons of material, which are now held in the ARQUA underwater archeology museum in Cartagena – is proof that the legal battle in the United States ended well for Spain. But the latest decision in the Spanish case, to which EL PAÍS has had access, leaves no doubt that the investigation into potential crimes has definitively been shipwrecked.
The three judges who were responsible for the case found that the shelving, which cannot be appealed, is based principally on the fact that the potential offenses have now exceeded the statute of limitations in Spain for trial. And the slow process of the probe, according to the judges’ writ, was due to the failure of the US justice system to respond to the letters rogatory sent in 2013, and that were needed if Stemm and the rest of the suspects were to be questioned by investigators.
“In terms of the lawsuit over the coins, the United States was on Spain’s side,” explains Ángel Núñez, a public prosecutor who specializes in cultural heritage and who was in charge of the case until 2009. “But it is true that when it comes to targeting one of their own nationals, they are not so willing to collaborate. And given that these were US citizens who are not at the disposal of the Spanish courts…”
The Spanish court probe into Odyssey had already entered into a tailspin before this latest ruling. In December 2016, another judge in La Línea dismissed the case. The private prosecution, which was brought by the company Nerea Arqueología Subacuática, appealed the decision but it was rejected. In a new attempt to not let the legal process die, archeologist Javier Noriega, one of the heads of this small company based in Málaga, took the case to the High Court of Cádiz province, in La Línea, the one that has definitively shelved the proceedings.
In their ruling, the judges add that they share “with the appellant his surprise, confusion and even anger for the, shall we call it, unusual proceedings with this case, at least since the year 2013.” The magistrates do not go so far as to specify what prompted them to feel this way.
Archeologist Javier Noriega believes that he knows all too well what they are referring to. He and his colleagues decided to take up the case – represented by the attorney José María Lancho – as a “professional and moral obligation.” They have since seen how “all of these years can be summed up by the end: exceeding the statute of limitations.” “They avoided entering into the substance of what happened to Spain’s cultural heritage,” the expert complains.
These unusual proceedings in the investigation which the judges mention and that Noriega suffered first-hand were reported on in the Spanish press. In March 2012, a former legal representative for Odyssey, with no authority, entered the courtroom when the judge was absent and persuaded court workers to photocopy the entire findings of the legal investigation so far, as was reported by the Spanish daily Abc at the time. According to Abc, such an action would have allowed Odyssey to prepare a defense against the findings of Civil Guard investigators and decide whether or not to actually take part in the trial.
The actions of the representative were very serious, taking into account that the probe was counting on a protected witness: a diver who had been threatened for having denounced Odyssey, given that he had knowledge of some of its activities in Spanish waters.
Now Noriega, 46, is gloomy about the end of a process that has occupied a significant part of his career. “As people who love our profession, it’s frustrating,” he explains. “It ends up being a defeat for all of us, for culture and for society. And if as well as that, the person responsible has gone unpunished, because of the statute of limitations, that’s very sad.”
Despite the legal setback, the archeologist argues that the court probe contains “evidence of all kinds, archeological, from witnesses, technical, juridical, and a ton of resounding questions that deal with what supposedly happened with an overwhelming truthfulness.”
The expert believes that an opportunity has been missed by Europe to convey “a clear message to the thieves who have spent years destroying the history of those shipwrecks from the modern era all over the world.”
Odyssey Marine Exploration never had any interest in the Spanish frigate beyond the cargo of silver and gold that it was carrying. That was made clear by the destruction caused by the company in the archeological area where the remains of the 275 people killed in the attack in 1804 lay. “When an archeological site is plundered, it is destroyed forever,” states Noriega.
After the site was looted, ARQUA led a scientific excavation that was carried out in three campaigns – from 2015 to 2017 – in which the remains of the shipwreck were documented and the items that the treasure hunters left behind were removed. These included cannon, cutlery and other everyday objects from life on board. The expedition also achieved the challenge of descending 1,130 meters underwater, the maximum depth achieved until that point during a subaquatic arqueological mission by a European country.
While the damage done to a historical site such as the Mercedes shipwreck will not result in a trial or convictions, Núñez believes that the consequences of the process “were positive, from a legal and global point of view.” Noriega goes even further: “Spain and its coasts are, today, possibly the best protected and safest in the world with regard to the protection of cultural heritage against looting.”
Since the Odyssey case, the classification of offenses against historical heritage in Spain has improved, new archeological maps have been created, there is better coordination between administrations, and there is greater social awareness about this kind of offense. It was precisely these weaknesses that the treasure-hunting company Odyssey made use of to make off with the coins. In fact, the activity has presumably lost its appeal not just in Spain but also elsewhere, given that the American company has since abandoned its treasure-hunting activities and is now focusing on underground mining.
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Diver finds 900-year-old Crusader sword off coast of Israel
Shlomi Katzin attached a GoPro camera to his forehead, slipped on his diving fins and jumped into the waters off the Carmel coast of Israel, eager to go exploring.
On the sandy floor of the Mediterranean Sea, he found a sword. Archaeologists would later determine that it was about 900 years old.
It weighed four pounds, measured about four feet long and originated from the Third Crusade, experts said.
“Oh yes, he was surprised and happy,” said Jacob Sharvit, the director of the marine archaeology unit at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Katzin said he would give the sword to Sharvit’s agency, but he wanted just one thing: a photo with the shell-encrusted weapon.
The recent discovery was welcomed in a country that takes immense pride in its history and has a law requiring that any artifacts found must be returned to the nation. The sword was among several artifacts discovered by Katzin, who declined to be interviewed because he said he did not want the discovery to be about him. He also found stone anchors and pottery fragments that date back hundreds of years. But nothing was more impressive than the sword, which Sharvit described as “extremely rare.”
All of the items were found in the same 1,000-square-foot site. The authority has been aware of the location since June, after a storm shifted the sand. Still, finding artifacts remains elusive because of the movement of the sand.
“It’s normal to find swords in bad condition, but this one was found under the water – and under the water, it was preserved in very good condition,” Sharvit said Monday. “It’s the first time that we found a beautiful sword like this.”
The water off the Carmel coast remains the same temperature year-round, which helped preserve the iron in the sword. Because the iron was oxidizsed, shells and other marine organisms stuck onto it like glue, Sharvit said. The discovery of ancient artifacts has increased as diving has grown in popularity in Israel, he said.
In the Second Crusade, the Muslim forces defeated Western crusaders at Damascus, said Jonathan Phillips, a professor of the history of the Crusades at Royal Holloway, University of London. The sword would have been expensive to make at the time and viewed as a status symbol, Holloway said. It makes sense that it was found in the sea, he said, because many battles were waged near beaches, where Christian soldiers landed and were sometimes attacked by Muslim forces.
“It could have been from a knight who fell in the sea or lost it in a fight at sea,” he said. When Katzin found it, he said he was afraid it would be stolen or buried beneath shifting sand, according to a statement from the authority. The general director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Escosido, praised Katzin because “every ancient artifact that is found helps us piece together the historical puzzle of the Land of Israel.” Katzin was given a certificate of appreciation for good citizenship.
During the Third Crusade, King Philip Augustus of France, King Richard I (also known as Richard the Lionheart of England), and the holy Roman emperor, Frederick I (also known as Frederick Barbarossa), set out to retake Jerusalem. Saladin, the ruler of an area covering modern Egypt, Syria and Iraq, had conquered it in 1187, said John Cotts, a professor of medieval history at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
At the time, Pope Gregory VIII tried to inspire Western Christians through “great emotional language” to retake Jerusalem from Muslims, but ultimately the Muslim army maintained control of the city, Cotts said. “Traditionally, the definition of a knight is someone on horseback who engaged in mounted warfare,” Cotts said. It is possible that the sword belonged to one of them, and has survived for nine centuries, Sharvit said. After the sword is studied and cleaned, it will be placed in one of the country’s museums, Sharvit said. He would not disclose how much it could sell for, he said, because in his opinion, it was “priceless.” “Every artifact we find is always a really great feeling,” he said. But this one “is very, very special.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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