Have we really found Amelia Earhart’s bones? Fatima Sheriff

Amelia Earhart is one of the most famous aviators of her time and throughout history – breaking record after record, blazing the trail for female pilots and in July 1937, then disappearing over the Pacific Ocean, never to be seen again. But this may not be the end of her story; a new study in Forensic Anthropology claims that a set of bones found within the vicinity of her disappearance in 1940 are in fact her remains.

Born at the turn of the 20th century, Earhart found herself within a society ingrained with “age-old customs”, where women were “bred to timidity”. However, after her first time in a plane in December 1920, she found her place in the world, starting lessons 6 days later and within a year passing the test for her National Aeronautics Association licence (the 16th woman ever to do this). She quickly rose to fame becoming the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet in 1922.

As a passenger in the first flight across the Atlantic in 1928, whereas others were paid thousands of dollars, she was paid in… “experience and opportunity”. Confident in her own ability, she followed suit in 1932, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. Along the way she had to deal with leaking fuel, flames in the engine and ice on the wings of her plane with “only tomato juice to keep her own energy levels up”. Despite all these challenges, her piloting skills and quick problem solving meant she landed safely. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and continued to add to her astonishing list of achievements with the mentality that “women must try to do things that men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others”.  She inspired other women to join her, founding the Ninety Nines, an organisation for the advancement of licensed female pilots.

Her spirit of adventure led her to plan the next ambitious trip: a round the world flight of 29,000 miles over 40 days with 20 stops. Leaving on the 1st of June 1937 from Oakland, California, she flew east with her navigator, Fred Noonan. After many successful stops and only 7,000 miles to go before they reached Oakland again, on the 2nd July they went off course and were never found.

The stop they were heading for was Howland Island, only a square mile in size and therefore difficult to find. Radio messages from the pair stated: “we must be on you but we cannot see you, fuel is running low, been unable to reach you by radio, flying at 1000 ft” . Their last ‘frantic’ communication was “on the line 157, 337”. Searches were conducted, covering 250,000 square miles, but on the 19th July, the plane was officially declared lost at sea.

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Various conspiracies have gripped the world decades later but renewed efforts to find the plane have found nothing. A theory that gained a lot of momentum was that she had been stranded southwest along the line 157,337 on an island nearby Howland Island, Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro. Although planes passing over it on the 9th July 1937 reported no visible activity on the island, items recovered later included a woman’s shoe and the box for a sextant (a navigation device that could have been Earhart’s). Most importantly, 13 bones were recovered in 1941 and examined by a D. W. Hoodless in Fiji. He determined the bones to be a ‘short, stocky European man’ and in shocking scientific practice (some may say suspiciously so) he discarded the bones.

Many people have doubted his identification. Using his records, in 1998 TIGHAR (The International Group for History Aircraft Recovery) re-estimated the bones to be that of a 5ft 5-9inch European woman fitting Amelia’s biological profile. She was several inches taller than the average woman of the time, potentially accounting for the dismissal of the skeleton’s sex as male. Richard Jantz released a paper in March this year, further disputing Hoodless’ original assertion. He compared the length of the humerus, radius and tibia to photos of Amelia, information on her pilot’s license and historic seamstress measurements. His conclusion was that “Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a large reference sample.” The reason why only 13 bones were found could be down to the native coconut crabs, the largest living arthropods on land (and frankly, terrifying) which could have carried off the rest of the remains.

However, the lack of a complete skeleton remains an obstacle for the definitive identification of the remains. For instance, a pelvis bone could clear up any ambiguity with the sex of the skeleton. Without the original remains it is also impossible to conduct DNA analysis to confirm identity, something that soil analysis and bone sniffing dogs have failed to do. Therefore, this is a compelling argument but not close to indisputable certainty. Whatever you choose to believe, Amelia left a legacy that won’t be forgotten…

“Adventure is worthwhile in itself” – Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)

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