History

Skeleton Offers Clue to Amelia Earhart's Fate

A new discovery shows a striking similarity between the pilot and a partial skeleton of a castaway found on a remote island in 1940.

New evidence has come to light supporting the theory that Amelia Earhart died as a castaway on Nikumaroro, a tiny, uninhabited tropical island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati.

According to researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the last, fateful flight taken by Earhart nearly 80 years ago, "there is a newly discovered similarity" between Amelia Earhart and partial skeletal remains found on the remote atoll in 1940.

Earhart disappeared while flying over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937 in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator. Her final resting place has long been a mystery.

A number of artifacts recovered by TIGHAR on 11 expeditons to Nikumaroro have suggested that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, did not crash in the Pacific Ocean, running out of fuel somewhere near their target destination Howland Island.

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Instead, they made a forced landing on the Nikumaroro's smooth, flat coral reef. According to Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR's executive director, the two became castaways and eventually died on the atoll, which is some 350 miles southeast of Howland Island.

"We know that in 1940 British Colonial Service officer Gerald Gallagher recovered a partial skeleton of a castaway on Nikumaroro," Gillespie told Discovery News.

Analyzed and attributed to a male by a British doctor, the bones were later lost.

"The entire incident was forgotten until TIGHAR discovered the original British files in 1998, including the skeletal measurements the doctor made," TIGHAR said in a statement.

A re-evaluation of the measurements by forensic anthropologists Karen Burns and Richard Jantz led to the conclusion that the bones were actually consistent with a female of Earhart's height and ethnic origin.

"While working on a new evaluation of the bones described by the British doctor in 1941, Dr. Jantz noticed that the skeleton's forearms were considerably larger than average," Gillespie said.

Statistically, women born in the late 19th century had an average radius to humerus ratio of 0.73. But the ratio in the skeletal remains was of 0.756.

The question now was if Amelia had similarly longer-than-average forearms.

TIGHAR asked forensic imaging specialist Jeff Glickman to find clues from a historical photo of Amelia where her bare arms were clearly visible.

"Working with Dr. Jantz to identify the correct points on the shoulder, elbow and wrist for comparing bone length, Glickman found that Earhart's humerus to radius ratio was 0.76 - virtually identical to the castaway's," TIGHAR said.

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"The match does not, of course, prove that the castaway was Amelia Earhart, but it is a significant new data point that tips the scales further in that direction," Gillespie said.

According to TIGHAR, Earhart made more than 100 radio transmissions in the days after her plane vanished from the radar, but her distress calls were ignored.

"Earhart and Noonan eventually died as castaways on the waterless, uninhabited atoll, their aircraft washed into the ocean," Gillespie said.

After 11 expeditions to Nikumaroro, Gillespie is trying to raise money for a 12th in summer 2017, on the 80th anniversary of the disappearance of the legendary pilot.

The search for whatever remains of Earhart's twin-engine Electra will rely on two three-person manned submersibles operated by the University of Hawaiii's Undersea Research Laboratory (HURL). They will inspect the underwater area down to a depth of up to 6,500 feet.

Gillespie estimates the expedition will cost around $1,750,000.

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