Earlier this year, famed underwater explorer Robert Ballard wrapped up a search for the wreckage of Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra on the remote Pacific island of Nikumaroro — without finding the plane. But a new line of inquiry has opened in the search that has the potential to answer whether Earhart landed on the island just as decisively as the finding of the aircraft: Her bones may have been located after being lost in the chaos of WW2.
I’ve previously written a massive deep dive into Earhart and the mystery of her disappearance. If you’re looking for additional detail on the topic, start there. I’m going to keep this post shorter, to focus on the specifics of the discovery. In 1940, bones were discovered on Nikumaroro, then called Gardner Island, and sent to Fiji for analysis. Even at the time, the discoverers were aware that it was possible that the bones belonged to Earhart. British colonial officer Gerald Gallagher told his superiors, “Bones look more than four years old to me but there seems to be very slight chance that this may be remains of Amelia Earhart.”
The bones were analyzed by Dr. D.W. Hoodless, who concluded they belonged to an individual who was 5 feet, 5.5 inches tall (Earhart is listed as 5 foot, 8 inches tall on her records) and not less than 45 years of age (Earhart was 39 years, 11 months). He determined, however, that the bones were “MALE” (emphasis original). The bones could not have belonged to Fred Noonan, who was over six feet tall.
This description might make the issue sound like an open-and-shut case — more of a desperate attempt to prove a theory that not even Robert Ballard could demonstrate than any serious effort to locate proof of Earhart’s demise — but there are some substantial confounding factors. For one thing, we know the anthropologists of this era were working under incorrect assumptions.
PSMag has published a fascinating article on how the science of identifying gender based on skeletal remains has evolved since the early 1900s. We know that Dr. D. W. Hoodless was working with statistical analysis techniques created by Dr. Karl Pearson (1857 – 1936). Pearson did some of the early fundamental work in biostatistics and the application of mathematical analysis to living creatures, but anthropologists of his time believed you could split human skeletons cleanly down the middle into male and female camps.
Illustrations like this were drawn to show the anatomical differences between a male and female skeleton. The problem is, human bones don’t fall into this neat of a bimodal distribution. As more data on gravesites and archaeological finds was gathered, researchers noticed a significant problem in the data. In aggregate, there were 12 percent more “male” skeletons than female ones, even in scenarios where there was no known explanation for why this would be.
After 1972, the forensic anthropology community altered its practices and began classifying more skeletons as “indeterminate,” particularly when only partial remains were recovered. Improved identification techniques developed in the intervening period have also substantially reduced the systemic imbalance in identified biological sex. Dr. Hoodless did not receive a complete skeleton. The bones recovered from Nikumaroro included a human skull, humerus, radius, tibia, fibula, and both femora, but are not known to have included a pelvis. While the pelvis displays the most prominent sex-specific characteristics, “pelves are often not well preserved.” Attempting to determine the biological sex of a skeleton using other types of bones is much more prone to error.
In other words, there’s a genuine chance the bones were miscategorized in 1941, not because of any wrongdoing on the part of the examining physician, but because the science of sexing bones has improved enormously since the original examination was carried out.
Erin Kimmerle has located bones stored on Fiji, Aaccording to Fox News. “They had four or five large boxes of remains that were co-mingled,” she said. “The skulls that were there, there was one set of female remains that matched that description.” And Amelia Earhart has a living female niece.
Our deep dive lays out the ocean of circumstantial evidence that puts Earhart on Nikumaroro, including the heel of a woman’s shoe resembling ones Earhart was photographed wearing, a sextant box that could have belonged to Fred Noonan, her navigator, bits of cosmetic bottles, worked aluminum that might have come from the Electra, and a host of another found artifacts and research. The fact that coconut crabs will dismember humans and disarticulate their bones is a major confounder in any search for skeletal remains. It is possible that the remains found on Nikumororo belong to another hapless traveler, a hitherto-unknown castaway who died on an island with no surface source of potable fresh water. If you want to dig more into this mystery — one that I’ll freely admit I find captivating — start there.
If you don’t, just know this: There are two pieces of evidence that would absolutely establish that Amelia Earhart met her fate on Nikumororo: Her aircraft and herself. We can’t find one. We may have just found the other, lost for over 70 years.
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