Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A forensic scientist says that he has solved the mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart after more than 80 years of speculation. And contrary to a lot of theories about the fate of the aviator and her co-pilot Fred Noonan, he believes she was right where we thought she was all along.
Back in 1937, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan were attempt to become the first people to circumnavigate the globe by air. The trip was going according to plans with the Lockheed Electra aircraft making hops to various stopping points for repairs and refueling along the way. But, the duo ran into trouble somewhere over the Pacific Ocean while en route to Howland Island. They seemed to have made a navigational error, wandered off course, and ended up missing their destination. What became of them after that remains a mystery, with some speculating that they simply ran out of fuel and crashed in the ocean, while others have theorized that they crash landed on one of several islands in the area, where they most likely eventually died of starvation and dehydration.
One island that has long been a source of scrutiny is Nikumaroro, which is part of the country of Kiribati. Back in 1940, human bones were discovered on that island leading many to believe that may have been the final resting place for Earhart and Noonan. But, a forensic scientists examined the bones when they were first discovered and came to the conclusion that they belonged to a short, stocky man, and not Earhart at all. That seemed to put to rest the idea that the remains belonged to the aviator, allowing all kinds of other theories about her fate to arise, including the idea that she was captured and taken prisoner by the Japanese.
Now, a scientist at the University of Tennessee says that he has reexamined the forensic data from 1940, and come to the conclusion that there is a 99% likelihood that the bones that were found on Nikumaroro do indeed belong to Earhart. Richard L. Jantz has written a scholarly paper defending this argument in which he says that the methodology used in the initial examination used outdated and crude techniques that have been perfected over the past 70+ years. Jantz went on to use more modern techniques in his assessment, coming to the conclusion that he could rule out 99% of individuals living on the planet other than Earhart herself.
So what’s the catch? The bones that were recovered from Nikumaroro don’t exist any more. They’ve vanished into thin air and no one has seen them for decades. Jantz based his research on the reports that were made by the original forensic scientist who examined the bones back in 1941. That means he couldn’t take DNA samples for instance, although he did have accurate measurements of length for example. Using that knowledge, he was able to estimate Earhart’s physical proportions using photos and a pair of her pants that are on display in a museum to help come up with his conclusions. The data was also fed into software designed to aid forensic researchers as part of the process.
Other scientists who have seen the data say that it doesn’t prove that the Nikumaroro bones belong to Earhart. At best, she simply can’t be ruled out as a potential candidate. Still, there probably weren’t a lot of people that matched her size this precisely on the island back in 1940 when the bones were discovered. But without the actual bones themselves, the mystery will remain wide open.