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What to Make of Renewed Claims That Amelia Earhart Died as a Castaway

Reexamination of data from a 1940 skeleton, suggests that the long forearms may match those of the missing aviator

A 1933 Oil painting of the ill-fated aviator by Howard Chandler Christy. (National Portrait Gallery/The Seligman Family Foundation)
smithsonian.com

On July 2, 1937, Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan were on the third-to-last leg of her 30,000 mile attempt to become the first female pilot to circumnavigate the earth. The twin-engine Lockheed Electra departed from Lae, Papua New Guinea, on its way to Howland Island—a speck in the Pacific several hundred miles south of Hawaii. The Coast Guard ship Itasca was assigned to aid the world-famous pilot but captured only a few garbled communications from before the radio fell silent. Earhart and Noonan never made it. 

The search for Earhart following that fateful day was massive, including 3,000 personnel, ten ships and 65 airplanes. But they came up empty handed. Now, new analysis of some of her purported remains hints that Earhart may have not immediately perished in the crash.

From her short radio exchange, the crew aboard the Coast Guard ship believed she was near the island and running low on fuel in the final moments before crashing somewhere in the Pacific. But in the 80 years since they vanished, speculation buzzed around the mystery, with many still chasing down answers to this day. The theories have grown increasingly wild—some say she was a U.S. spy and was captured by the Japanese, others claim she returned to the U.S. anonymously after World War II to live out her life as a suburban housewife named Irene Bolam, still others say that she landed on a desert island but perished before rescue (and was perhaps eaten by coconut crabs).

This last idea is where the new analysis comes in.

For 25 years, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has slowly built a case that Earhart was several hundred miles off course and landed on Nikumaroro in the Republic of Kiribati, also known as Gardner Island. The main evidence is a skeleton that was recovered from the island in 1940, reportedly found with women's shoes and an empty box claimed to be a navigator's sextant box.

However, the British doctor D.W. Hoodless of the Central Medical School in Suva, Fiji, who examined the remains declared that they were they were from a short stocky male and could not be Earhart, according to a press release. The bones eventually went missing, but in 1998 TIGHAR researchers examining old files on the disappearance came across the doctor’s report and took the recorded measurements to forensic anthropologists for reexamination.

These researchers studied the data and compared the measurements to current larger databases of expected bone dimensions based on sex, age and race, concluding that the “measurements taken at the time appear consistent with a female of Earhart’s height and ethnic origin.”

When one of the anthropologists was recently updating this evaluation, however, he noticed that the ratio of the length of the skeleton's humerus, or upper arm bone, and radius, one of the bones in the forearm, was 0.756. Women of Earhart’s day typically had a ratio of 0.73, meaning that if the skeleton was from a woman of European ancestry, her forearms were longer than average, according to the press release.

TIGHAR contacted forensic imaging specialist Jeff Glickman, who evaluated a historical image in which Earhart’s bare arms are visible. According to his report, the ratio of Earhart’s humerus and radius that he could estimate from the photo is 0.76, very close to the ratio from the medical exam.

“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,” TIGHAR’s executive director Richard Gillespie tells Rossella Lorenzi at Discovery News.

However, as Kristina Killgrove writes for Forbes, this new analysis may be questionable. The amount of error associated with these ratios, known as the brachial index, is unknown. This means that the error associated with the measurement could make this slight difference irrelevant. "If the errors in this sort of analysis are typically small, they may not change the brachial index. But if the errors tend to be large, that index could change dramatically," Killgrove writes.

The spotty case for Earhart's survival for a few days on the island has grown over the years. In 1991, during an expedition to the island, the researchers discovered a scrap of aluminum. Later analysis showed that the pattern of rivet holes was similar to the patches used to repair Earhart's Lockheed Electra. Also in 1991, the researchers found the fragments of an old shoe—likely a mid 1930s woman's size nine blucher oxford with a recently replaced heel and brass eyelets. Photos show Earhart wearing the same type of shoe ten days before she disappeared. Some also suggest that Earhart made up to 100 radio transmissions between July 2 and July 6, which were picked up by radio operators.

But none of this evidence is airtight, and the mystery behind her final resting spot remains unsolved. Many researchers refute all of TIGHAR’s claims. Dorothy Cochrane, curator for general aviation at the National Air and Space Museum, wrote in an e-mail: 

"Both myself and Senior curator Dr. Tom Crouch have been debunking [Richard] Gillespie’s theory for more than 25 years. Our stance—that she went down into the Pacific Ocean in the proximity of Howland Island—is based on facts.  These facts come from her radio broadcasts enroute to Howland and directly to the US Coast Guard ship Itasca. These facts come from Earhart, Lockheed, USCG files, and respected researchers who compiled the details of her flight and her aircraft.  Many others have also rejected Gillespie’s claims. Gillespie’s theory is based on conjecture and circumstance. He repeatedly ignores facts such as the found sole of a woman’s shoe being the wrong size for Earhart—a fact stated by her sister.”

Next summer, the 80th anniversary of Earhart’s disappearance, TIGHAR hopes to mount its 12th expedition to Nikumaroro. 

Editor's Note, December 7, 2016: This story has been updated to include a comment from a curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. The headline has also been changed to reflect greater skepticism of TIGHAR's analysis.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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