Over 80 years after she mysteriously disappeared, the remains of pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart may have finally been identified, according to new research published in Forensic Anthropology. Authored by anthropologist Richard Jantz, who is director emeritus of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, the paper uses a range of approaches to reassess 13 bones recovered from the remote South Pacific island of Nikumaroro in 1940.
“This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample,” Jantz said in the paper’s abstract. “This strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart.”
Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, went missing along with navigator Fred Noonan in July 1937 during the pair’s attempted flight around the world. Search parties dispatched in the weeks following their disappearance discovered signs of recent inhabitation on Nikumaroro, a small island close to Earhart’s last known location, but no bodies or wreckage were found. Earhart and Noonan were declared dead in absentia in 1939, sparking a host of theories about their eerie vanishing.
The plot thickened in 1940, when a British work crew constructing a settlement on the island came across human skeletal remains, which were initially thought to have belonged to a woman. Later search efforts on Nikumaroro turned up a wealth of other suggestive artifacts, including a sextant box that might have been Noonan’s, part of a woman’s shoe, and a Benedictine bottle, a liqueur that Earhart was known to consume.
Sounds like a strong case for Nikumaroro being Earhart’s final resting place, right? Well, things got complicated when a 1941 report by medical examiner DW Hoodless deemed that the remains likely belonged to a stocky male, perhaps a castaway from the wreck of the freighter SS Norwich City, which ran aground on Nikumaroro in 1929. Unfortunately, the bones themselves were subsequently misplaced and have never been tracked down since, so all researchers have to go on is Hoodless’ observations and measurements.
Jantz overcame these limitations by carefully studying photographs of Earhart to estimate her height, weight, bone length, and skeletal robusticity. He also analyzed the bone measurements with Fordisc, a statistical computer program Jantz developed with fellow anthropologist Stephen Ousley, which has become a major tool in forensic anthropology. The software uses skeletal measurements to generate estimates of the age, sex, ancestry, height, and medical issues of deceased persons.
The results from this analysis suggested that it is extremely likely that the missing bones belonged to Earhart. “The bones are consistent with Earhart in all respects we know or can reasonably infer,” Jantz claims in the paper. “Her height is entirely consistent with the bones. The skull measurements are at least suggestive of a female. But most convincing is the similarity of the bone lengths to the reconstructed lengths of Earhart’s bones.”
“Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers,” Jantz concluded.
No doubt there will be plenty of commentary about Jantz’s methods and findings, but it bears mentioning that he is far from the only expert who thinks it is overwhelmingly likely that Earhart and Noonan died on Nikumaroro. The nonprofit International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, founded by aviation expert Richard Gillespie, has turned up items like buttons, aluminum, and anti-freckle cream on the island over the past few decades, and has presented preliminary sonar evidence that Earhart’s plane may be submerged 600 feet underwater off the island’s reef.
It’s been a long time coming, but Earhart’s final days are clearer than ever before. How fitting that the fate of this fearless explorer and champion of women’s rights should be effectively resolved in time for this year’s International Women’s Day.
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