If you were ever a second grade girl, chances are good that you once wrote a report about Amelia Earhart. If you were anything like me, you were really, really excited to read about this pioneering aviatrix whose daring transatlantic and record-setting flights shattered early 20th century misconceptions about the role of women and earned her the nickname “Queen of the Air.” And then you were promptly really, really bummed when you read that she disappeared in her prime while attempting to circumnavigate the globe. Sigh. You finished your report, gazed briefly at the speculations surrounding her untimely disappearance, and started your fractions homework. You moved on.
Like you, the world had largely forgotten about Amelia since her 1937 disappearance. That is, until December 14th, 2010, when researchers at The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) announced their possession of a fragment of what they believe to be Amelia Earhart’s finger bone.
After 22 years of rigorous research and 10 grueling expeditions, we can say that all of the evidence we have found on Nikumaroro is consistent with the hypothesis that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan landed and eventually died there as castaways.” – Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR Executive Director
Since the 1980s, TIGHAR’s Earhart Project has conducted global satellite sweeps in hopes of finding clues to Earhart’s death. Back in 1940, a British colonial officer found a partial skeleton along with a woman’s shoe, a wooden box that once contained a sexton, and discarded remains of turtle shells, clam shells and birds in what appeared to be a campsite on the uninhabited coral atoll of Nikumaroro Island. Tragically, these traces were lost over time, but because Nikumaroro lies close to where Earhart disappeared, TIGHAR chose to focus on this site starting in 1989 and sent 10 investigatory exhibitions to the island in the years to come.
Initially, researchers attributed the bone fragments found earlier this year to turtles whose shells were found close to the site. However, further inspection has led scientists to believe that the fragments may in fact be “cervical bone, a neck bone and a finger.” The bones will soon be examined at the Molecular Science Laboratories at Oklahoma University for a final verdict. Unfortunately, the results may take weeks or even months.
What’s exciting is that artifacts found on the island strongly indicate the historic presence of a castaway living on the island (Daily Mail). According to MSNBC, “Among the most interesting features are the remains of small fires with birds and fish bones, giant clams that had been opened like a New England oyster, empty shells laid out as if to collect rain water, pieces of a pocket knife, pieces of rouge and the broken mirror from a woman’s compact, and pre-war American bottles with melted bottoms that had once stood in a fire as if to boil drinking water.” This is in addition to 1930s American-made buttons and a flight jacket zipper consistent with items described in Earhart’s inventory.
Even the aviation scenario seems promising. As you can see, the island falls close to the line Earhart intended to fly from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island. TIGHAR’s Gillespie estimates Earhart would have needed only about 700 feet of unobstructed space to land and concludes that Nikumaroro would have proved sufficient. “It looks like she could have landed successfully on the reef surrounding the island. It’s very flat and smooth,” Gillespie said. “At low tide, it looks like this place is surrounded by a parking lot.”
So she probably managed a safe landing on Nikumaroro. But here’s the not-so-happy ending: Gillespie believes that crabs likely carried off many of Earhart’s bones. Which suggests a not-so-merciful ending for our heroine. “A crash at sea, that’s nice and clean and a quick ending,” he said. “Ending up as a castaway on a waterless atoll and failing and ultimately being eaten by crabs”? Not so much. No wonder the Earhart family preferred the alternative theories about her disappearance.
So, case closed on Amelia Earhart? Not quite. But it seems like TIGHAR might be getting close, and it will definitely be interesting to see what secrets these bone shards may reveal.