The tragic disappearance of Amelia Earhart in 1937 remains among the most pervasive mysteries in American culture. Earhart, a groundbreaking female aviator and celebrity in her own time, knew her goal of circumnavigating the globe in her Lockheed Electra was a dangerous one, but she and the American public seemed assured that she would be successful, just as she had been so many times before.
Of course, from our perspective on this side of history, we know her trip was destined for failure, but beyond that, the disappearance of Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan remains shrouded in mystery.
The thing is… maybe it shouldn’t be. The mystery surrounding Earhart’s disappearance may have actually been solved as soon as three years after her plane went down, but because of what seems like the incompetence of one doctor, we’ll likely never know for sure.
In 1940, just three years after Earhart and Noonan disappeared, a British expedition arrived on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro and set about scouting the landmass for settlement. As they scouted the island, they came across some rather unusual objects: a human skull and other bones, along with a woman’s shoe, a box made to hold a Brandis Navy Surveying Sextant (for use in navigation) that had been manufactured around 1918, and a bottle of Benedictine — which was an herbal-based liquor.
The small stature of the bones along with the other items discovered and the island’s location in the Pacific made it seem entirely feasible that the team had actually discovered the lost remains of the famed aviator. A theory began to form: Earhart may have seen the island in the distance and attempted to make it there as her fuel finally ran out. Based on the bones and other items found ashore, it even seemed possible that Earhart may have survived the sea-landing and made it to the island, only to eventually succumb to starvation, dehydration, or her injuries.
The skull and a dozen or so other bones were gathered from the site and shipped to Fiji, and the following year Doctor D.W. Hoodless of Fiji’s Central Medical School buckled down to study them. There was just one problem: forensic osteology, or the study of bones for these sorts of purposes, was far from the robust and mature science it is today.
Hoodless examined the thirteen bones and took a series of measurements that he recorded in his notes, before coming to a controversial conclusion. According to the doctor, the bones discovered on Nikumaroro didn’t belong to Earhart. Instead, he posited that they belonged to “middle-aged stocky male about 5’5.5″ in height.” It seemed, at least according to Hoodless’ assessment, that the Earhart mystery had not been solved.
Despite the woman’s shoe, herbal liquor Earhart was known to drink, and the box that held navigation equipment, Hoodless’ determination was enough to convince the world that the legendary pilot’s final resting place remained a mystery.
In fact, the world was so convinced that the bones didn’t belong to Earhart that they simply lost track of the bones from there. They’ve now been lost for decades, making a thorough and modern analysis of the remains impossible.
But that’s not the end of the story. A study published last year by Professor Richard Jantz from the University of Tennessee contests Hoodless’ findings using the very figures the doctor recorded in his notes back in 1940. Using modern forensics and a computer program designed to aid in determining age and gender from bone measurements, Jantz came to a very different conclusion than Hoodless.
“The fact remains that if the bones are those of a stocky male, he would have had bone lengths very similar to Amelia Earhart’s, which is a low-probability event,” Jantz wrote. In fact, he went on to write that, “This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a large reference sample.”
Sadly, without the bones to further the analysis, it’s impossible to state conclusively that these bones did indeed belong to Earhart, but based on Jantz assessment, it seems more likely than not that Earhart really did make it to Nikumaroro Island. That conclusion may solve one mystery, but it would create a few more: how long did Earhart survive? What were her final days like?
Unfortunately, it seems likely that we’ll never know.