In 1937, legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart disappeared while flying over the Pacific Ocean. It’s presumed that she and Fred Noonan, her navigator, crashed somewhere in the open ocean. However, an astonishing forensic investigation suggests the two died as castaways on the island of Nikumaroro, part of the Phoenix Islands, Kiribati, in the western Pacific Ocean.
Richard Jantz, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, examined seven bone measurements performed in 1940 by a physician called D. W. Hoodless. The original analysis signed by Hoodless concluded the bones belonged to a man. Aided by modern forensic techniques — among them, Fordisc, software that estimates sex, ancestry, and statute based on skeletal measurements — Jantz and colleagues came to a totally different conclusion.
At the time Hoodless performed his examination, forensic osteology — the application of the study of bones (osteology) to the field of forensic science — was still in its early stages, which therefore affected his assessment of which sex the remains belonged to. The researchers say that not only do the bones belong to a woman, they likely represent the remains of Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Jantz says that the remains bear more similarity to Earhart than 99 percent of individuals from a large reference sample. Earhart’s skeletal measurements were estimated from historical photographs with scalable objects. Jantz obtained measurements for her humerus and radius lengths, while her tibia length was estimated from her clothing. The seamstress who sewed Earhart’s clothes also recorded the inseam length and waist circumference of the woman’s trousers.
Besides the bones, a 1940 search party, which arrived at the island of Nikumaroro, found a woman’s shoe, a sextant box from 1918 similar to the one Noonan used, and a Benedictine bottle, which was Earhart’s favorite. Unfortunately, the bones — the skull, tibia, humerus, and radius — disappeared with only the metric data remaining.
“There was suspicion at the time that the bones could be the remains of Amelia Earhart,” Jantaz wrote in the study.
Jantz and colleagues also investigated two other leads. One hypothesis was that the bones belonged to one of 11 men presumed killed during a 1929 shipwreck on the island’s western reef, four miles from where the bones were originally found. Another lead which the researchers investigated was the possibility that the bones belonged to a Pacific Islander. There was no evidence that any of the shipwreck’s crew or a Pacific Islander had ended up as a castaway on the island. The artifacts, like the woman’s shoe and American sextant, also point towards Earhart as a more likely candidate for the castaway bones.
“In the case of the Nikumaroro bones, the only documented person to whom they may belong is Amelia Earhart,” Jantz said.
The story of Earhart’s disappearance has been the subject of long-standing controversy. Many books and TV programs have attempted to unravel her final days and crash site. Some have suggested that Earhart and her navigator landed on the Marshall Islands where they were captured by the Japanese who must have thought they were American spies. Subsequently, they were tortured and killed, or so it goes.
Another recent study, published in 2012, identified credible radio signals thought to be beamed from Earhart’s airplane. Earhart ‘s aircraft was likely on land and on its wheels for several days following the disappearance. However, these signals were dismissed and never followed up by a search party.
Earhart “was known to have been in the area of Nikumaroro Island, she went missing, and human remains were discovered which are entirely consistent with her and inconsistent with most other people,” the researchers concluded in the journal Forensic Anthropology.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.