This is one of the last photographs made in Los Angeles of Amelia Earhart with her navigator as they completed preparations for their ill-fated flight.
July 13, 2012
-- As the search for Amelia Earhart's plane probes the waters off Nikumaroro, a tiny uninhabited island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, a new paper has reconstructed what may have happened to the legendary aviator 75 years ago. Written by Thomas King, the senior archaeologist on Amelia Earhart search project, the paper summarizes 23 years of interdisciplinary research by the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (or TIGHAR). It will be published by the academic journal Pacific Studies in October. "In the Earhart case, strong circumstantial evidence supports the hypothesis that the pilot and navigator Fred Noonan landed their Lockheed Electra 10E safely on Nikumaroro, made repeated efforts to radio for help, and eventually died as castaways," King told Discovery News.
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The Facts Earhart sent her final radio transmission on July 2, 1937 during a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator. Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in the final minutes of a flight from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island in the Pacific. At 07:42 local time, as she flew toward the target destination, Earhart called the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed at Howland Island for support. "We must be on you, but cannot see you -- but gas is running low. Have been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet," she said. Earhart's final inflight radio message went out an hour later, at 08:43. "We are on the line 157 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait," she said. What happened after that last radio message has remained a mystery for 75 years.
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The Hypothetical Reconstruction TIGHAR researchers believe that Earhart and Noonan reached the vicinity of Howland Island, but were unable to see it, perhaps due to difficult morning light conditions or because they were somewhat off-course to the south. Unable to communicate with the Itasca, and to see Howland Island, they flew southeast and in the late morning sighted Nikumaroro, at that time known as Gardner Island. According to the researchers' hypothetical reconstruction, the pair made an emergency landing on the island's northwest reef flat, north of the wreck of the British steamer SS Norwich City, which went aground on the island's reef in 1929.
Nikumaroro A desert atoll, less than five miles long and 1.5 miles wide, with a lagoon at its center, Nikumaroro is far from a dreamy island getaway. The island has no fresh water and has roasting temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit -- even in the shade. The island is wooded in indigenous forest dominated by the Buka, a large tropical softwood tree, feral coconut and shrubs known as Scaevola frutescens. The island was uninhabited when Earhart disappeared in 1937, but was colonized in late 1938, with the colony lasting until 1963.
Distress Calls As soon as they landed, Earhart and Noonan are believed to have begun sending dozens of radio distress calls using the Electra's equipment. TIGHAR re-examined all the 120 known reports of radio signals suspected or alleged to have been sent from the Earhart aircraft after 12 noon on July 2, 1937 through July 18, 1937, when the official search ended. They concluded that 57 out of the 120 reported signals are credible.
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The Photograph After a few days, however, TIGHAR postulates that flood tides lifted the Electra and carried it over the reef edge, leaving behind the landing gear, which was inadvertently photographed by British Colonial Service officer Eric R. Bevington three months later in October 1937 The airplane either broke up in the surf on the reef edge, or was obscured by waves when the U.S.S. Colorado flyers flew over on July 9 during high tide. The Colorado flyers also did not see Earhart and Noonan. "TIGHAR's experience is that in the highly contrasting visual environment of the Nikumaroro shore it is very difficult to see people on the ground from the altitude flown by the Colorado planes," King said.
Fred Noonan's Fate Noonan may have not survived long. The content of some of the recovered radio messages suggests that he may have been injured in the landing.
Exploring the Island With the plane lost, TIGHAR believes that Earhart -- and Noonan, if still alive -- went to explore the island. They carried with them a few supplies, such as cosmetics for protection from the equatorial sun and Earhart's compact with its handy mirror. When he visited the island three months later, the British officer, Bevington, reported signs of someone's "overnight bivouac" near the lagoon on the southwestern side of the island.
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Map of the Island From the western reef slope, where she landed, Earhart is thought to have reached an area that TIGHAR calls the Seven Site, in the island's remote southeast end. There she may have survived for some days or weeks, but finally succumbed, probably to thirst.
Crabs Consumed Remains TIGHAR researchers believe that her body was largely consumed by the site's numerous hermit and coconut crabs, leaving only 13 bones, a few artifacts, and the remains of her cooking fires.
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Skeletal Remains Indeed, a partial skeleton was found in 1940 at the Seven Site. The remains were recovered by British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher and described in a forensic report. According to that report, the bones probably belonged to an individual "more likely female than male," "more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander," and "most likely between 5 feet, 5 inches and 5 feet, 9 inches in height." Unfortunately the bones have been lost. A woman's shoe, an empty bottle and a sextant box whose serial numbers are consistent with a type known to have been carried by Noonan were also found near the bones.
Clam Shells Amelia may have survived on Nikumaroro for weeks and possibly months, according to Ric Gillespie, executive director of TIGHAR. Archaeological investigations at the Seven Site unearthed significant clues that suggest a castaway presence. "We found several small and large fires. The fire features contained bird, fish, and turtle bones. We also found two clusters of giant clam shells," King said. He added that many of the clams appeared to have been opened by someone who tried to pry them apart on the hinge side, others have been opened by smashing them with rocks. Whoever camped there was catching small reef and lagoon fish, cooking them on the coals, not consuming the heads, and disposing of their bones in the fires. "None of this behavior is consistent with fishing and fish preparation by indigenous Pacific islanders," said King.
Artifacts Apart from the fire features, the researchers also found a knife that was beaten apart to detach the blades, and several broken, partially-melted bottles in the remains of a cooking fire. They were probably used to boil or distill drinking water. "These objects tell a fascinating story of ingenuity, survival and, ultimately, tragedy," Gillespie said.
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Deep Water As Amelia struggled to survive on the island, King proposes that the wreckage of the Electra aircraft broke up and was distributed down the face of the reef, where some of it was collected by villagers. TIGHAR has found aircraft parts in the colonial village, but has been unable to tie them specifically to Earhart's plane. Larger and heavier pieces may still lie obscured on the reef slope, or at the point below 1000 feet where the slope becomes less acute than it is higher up. As the expedition continues to find the plane, we may learn the answers soon.
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- DNA tests have not yet offered proof that Earhart lived as a castaway on a remote island in the Pacific.
- Genetic tests have not been able to answer whether a bone fragment is in fact part of a human finger.
- Researchers have, however, succeeded in extracting human DNA from clumps of a substance believed to be feces.
Scientific investigations have revealed that human DNA may be present in fragments of material which could provide crucial information about the fate of Amelia Earhart, the legendary pilot who disappeared 74 years ago while flying over the Pacific Ocean in a record attempt to circle the world at the equator.
Collected on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited, waterless tropical island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati where Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan might have made an emergency landing, the material consisted of a tiny bone fragment and clumps of material resembling soil or feces.
While human mitochondrial DNA was recovered from the clumps, tests on the bone fragment were less conclusive.
"There does appear to be ancient DNA present in the bones and material we collected but it's in very bad condition," Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the Earhart mystery, told Discovery News.
TIGHAR's investigations and theories challenge the assumption that Earhart's twin-engined Lockheed "Electra" crashed in the ocean when running out of fuel on July 2, 1937.
"A large and growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests that Earhart and her navigator landed and lived for a time as castaways only to eventually perish on the atoll," Gillespie said.
Discovered last June with several other artifacts during a month-long expedition, the bone fragment's features led forensic anthropologist Karen Burns to wonder if it might be part of a human finger.
Indeed, it was found at a site on the atoll where the partial skeleton of a castaway was discovered in 1940.
Recovered by British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher, the partial skeleton was described in a forensic report and attributed to an individual "more likely female than male," "more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander," "most likely between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 9 inches in height."
Unfortunately the bones have been lost.
"No hand bones were found in 1940, so the presence of a surviving human finger bone seems plausible," Gillespie said.
This is one of the last photographs made in Los Angeles of Amelia Earhart with her navigator as they completed preparations for their ill-fated flight.Bettmann/CORBIS
Structurally finger-like, the bone fragment was initially attributed to a turtle. It was only when archaeologist Tom King catalogued the turtle bones found at the site that questions began to arise.
"All turtle bones were associated with the shell. No limb bones were identified. If whoever brought the turtle to the site didn't bring the legs, how did a phalanx-like bone get there?" said Gillespie.
In an attempt to solve the mystery, the bone fragment was sent to the Molecular Anthropology Laboratories at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla.
Initial tests for the presence of human mitochondrial DNA in the bone fragment were positive, but subsequent testing was unable to replicate the results.
According to Cecil M. Lewis, who carried out the DNA tests, this suggests that either the initial detection of human DNA was attributed to a sporadic DNA contamination event, or there was human DNA in the extract, but it was too little, or of too poor quality for a consistent analysis.
Another possibility is that the DNA in the bone was non-human.
More general tests for animal DNA, human and non-human, provided "no positive results," suggesting three possibilities: there was no animal DNA in the bone; there was animal DNA, but it was too little or of too poor of quality to reliably analyze; or the real time Polymerase Chain Reaction method used to detect the DNA was ineffective for targeting the particular animal.
"For now, the question of whether the bone is human must remain unanswered," Lewis concluded.
The researchers decided to preserve a tiny fragment of the bone, hoping to use it in the future as less destructive, and more sensitive genomic methods develop.
Analysis of clumps of a substance recovered from the same site yielded more promising results.
Archaeologically, the clumps are anomalous in the context of the site. Examined by University of Maine anthropologist Kristin Sobolik, the mass was found to possess some fecal properties.
The material has been analyzed by the Molecular Anthropology Laboratories at Oklahoma University. There, Lewis's team was able to extract human mitochondrial DNA.
"DNA from two individuals was detected but to date, the amount extracted is not sufficient for comparison to Earhart reference samples," Gillespie said.
According to Lewis, the most common explanation for multiple sequences is either the sample is associated with a temporary latrine used by more than one person, or the retrieved data still includes modern human contamination.
"We will continue to explore how well these explanations fit the data by further molecular testing," Lewis said.
In addition to the bacteria and human DNA analyses, future analysis will include targets for plants and animals.
According to Lewis, the presence of certain plant and animal DNA would be a further indication that the clumps are fecal matter and could provide information about the diet and general health of the individual.