Amelia Earhart’s disappearance may have been solved by forensic science

The mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart has consumed historians, conspiracy theorists, and the general public for generations, and new forensic research may put us one step closer to learning the truth.

The pioneering aviator was last seen on July 2, 1937, when her Lockheed Electra 10E plane vanished during an ill-fated attempt to fly around the world. By 1939, the US government concluded Earhart must have been lost in the Pacific and declared her dead.

Richard Jantz, emeritus professor and director of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, re-examined data from remains found on the island of Nikumaroro in 1940 and concluded in a study published in the journal Forensic Anthropology the bones were “likely those of Amelia Earhart.”

Amelia Earhart’s last flight

Earhart was the first female pilot to successfully fly solo across the Atlantic. When her plane mysteriously disappeared attempting to cross the Pacific in 1937 with navigator Fred Noonan, many assumed the duo crashed in the middle of the ocean and were lost at sea.

Hope for an answer was revived last summer when the History channel unearthed a photograph in the National Archives that purported to show Earhart on the Marshall Islands after the crash. However shortly after the photo was published, two bloggers found it in a Japanese coffee table book from 1935, two full years before Earhart’s disappearance.

The mystery continued.

A photograph that supposedly showed Earhart after the crash turned out to be a red herring. (National Archives)

The discovery of bones on Nikumaroro

In 1940, three years after Earhart’s plane went missing, British officials discovered 13 human bones on Nikumaroro, a tiny, uninhabited island in the South Pacific also known as Gardner Island.

Along with the remains, the search party found part of shoe that appeared to be a woman’s, a American sextant box similar to the kind Earhart used, and a Benedictine bottle, something she was known to carry.

Physician D.W. Hoodless examined the bones in 1940 shortly after the discovery and concluded that they belonged to a “short, European” man.

But in 1998, a group of researchers from International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) re-analyzed Hoodless’s measurements against an anthropological database and found they could have come from a tall woman (Earhart was about 5’7” or 5’8”). An attempt last June to find other bones at the site was unsuccessful.

“There are many examples of erroneous assessments by anthropologists of the period,” Jantz, one of the original TIGHAR researchers, wrote in his recent paper. “We can agree that Hoodless may have done as well as most analysts of the time could have done, but this does not mean his analysis was correct.”

What deeper analysis found

Adding more intrigue to the mystery, the bones discovered on Nikumaroro have disappeared in the years since Hoodless’s analysis. All that remains are four measurements of a skull and three long bones, a tibia, humerus, and radius.

After a 2012 paper published in the Journal of Archaeological Science criticized TIGHAR’s 1998 findings, Jantz set out to conduct a more in-depth analysis. He used several investigative techniques, including Fordisc, a computer program used to estimate sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements, to conclude with almost absolute certainty that Hoodless was incorrect in his gender assessment—and that the remains had a high statistical probability of belonging to Earhart.

According to Jantz’s paper, “Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a large reference sample,” which “strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart.”

Amelia Earhart, Fred Noonan
Amelia Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan pose with a map showing the route of their final flight. (Associated Press)

Jantz compared the lengths of the bones discovered on the island with Earhart’s. The size of her humerus and radius were determined using a photographs with a scalable object. A historic seamstress took measurements from her clothing in the George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers at Purdue University to find her tibia length.

Other possibilities

Jantz also considered the possibility that the Nikumaroro bones may have belonged to one of 11 men presumably killed near the island during a British shipwreck in 1929, or that they could have been the bones of a Pacific Islander. But there is no documentation whatsoever that supports either of these theories. And a woman’s shoe and an American sextant box are not artifacts likely to originate from the survivor of that shipwreck.

The research paper argues that 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.”

Based on the measurements and other forensic analysis, Jantz concludes “until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.”

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