Bones Discovered in 1940 Could Have Been Amelia Earhart’s

A new forensic analysis suggests that skeletal remains found on a remote island belonged to the famous pilot.

By Rachel Hartigan
Published 9 Mar 2018, 15:51 GMT
Amelia Earhart hoped to cap her career in 1937 by becoming the first woman to fly ...
Amelia Earhart hoped to cap her career in 1937 by becoming the first woman to fly around the world. She died in the attempt, and her remains were never found. Or were they?
Photograph by Bettman, Getty

A new forensic analysis suggests that bones found on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro in 1940—and subsequently lost—could very well have been those of Amelia Earhart.

On July 2, 1937, on the third-to-last leg of their attempt to circumnavigate the globe, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were aiming for Howland Island just north of the equator. After taking off from Lae, New Guinea, they failed to locate Howland and vanished.

Three years later, and 350 nautical miles southwest of Howland, a British official in Nikumaroro discovered 13 bones buried near the remains of a campfire on the island. The bones were shipped to Fiji, where two doctors examined them. One thought they came from an elderly Polynesian male; the other, David Hoodless, postulated that they belonged to a European male.

The bones have since disappeared, but Hoodless’s seven measurements survived—four of the skull and three long bone lengths (humerus, radius, and tibia).

Richard Jantz, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, recently analysed those measurements as well as Earhart’s body dimensions as indicated by photographs and articles of clothing. The evidence, he says, “strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart.”

At the very least, Jantz argues, the possibility can’t be excluded. The measurements are consistent with her known height, the skull could be female, and the bone lengths are close to what he estimates hers were. “If the bones do not belong to Amelia Earhart,” he writes in Forensic Anthropology, “then they are from someone very similar to her.”

These bones are not the only evidence placing Earhart on Nikumaroro Island. The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has long been investigating the hypothesis that Earhart and Noonan landed their Lockheed Electra 10E there when they couldn’t find Howland.

The researchers base their hypothesis on Earhart’s last radio transmissions. At 8:43 a.m. on July 2, Earhart radioed the Itasca, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter awaiting Earhart at Howland: "KHAQQ [the Electra's call letters] to Itasca. We are on the line 157 337." The Itasca received the transmission but couldn't get any bearings on the signal.

The “line 157 337” indicates that the plane was flying on a northwest to southeast navigational line that bisected Howland Island. If Earhart and Noonan missed Howland, they would fly either northwest or southeast on the line to find it. To the northwest of Howland lies open ocean for thousands of miles; to the southwest is Nikumaroro.

Later in 1937, a British party explored the island with the intent of colonising it. Eric Bevington, a colonial officer, noticed what looked like an “overnight bivouac.” He also took a photograph of the shoreline, which includes an unidentified object that TIGHAR speculates might be a plane’s landing gear.

By 1938 the island was colonised as part of the Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, one of the British Empire’s last expansions. Colonists reported finding airplane parts, some of which could have plausibly come from the Electra.

TIGHAR has launched 12 expeditions to Nikumaroro since 1989. Over the course of those visits to the island, they’ve identified a site that matches the description of where the bones were found.

At the Seven Site (the name comes from the shape of the clearing around it) there’s evidence of several campfires, as well as the remains of birds, fish, turtles, and clams, indicating that someone ate there. Based on the way the clams were opened and the fish consumed (the heads weren’t eaten), that someone was probably not a Pacific islander.

Several 1930s-era glass bottles have also been discovered at the site. One of them may even have contained freckle cream, a cosmetic Earhart was likely to have used.

Last summer, four human remains detection dogs from the Institute for Canine Forensics brought to the island “alerted” on the Seven Site, signaling that someone had died there. No additional bones were discovered in a subsequent excavation but soil from the site is currently undergoing DNA analysis.

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