Three years after Amelia Earhart vanished in 1937 during an attempted flight around the world, a search party uncovered human remains on the island of Nikumaroro — a small, western Pacific atoll that would have fallen on Earhart’s flight path.
Along with the remains, the 1940 search party found a piece of a woman’s shoe, a sextant box of the kind Earhart’s navigator Fred Noonan would have used and a Benedictine liqueur bottle of the sort that Earhart was known to carry, according to University of Tennessee researchers.
All that evidence seemed to suggest the remains belonged to Earhart, and that she had died as a castaway during her doomed but legendary circumnavigation attempt.
But that theory was dismissed in 1941, following the forensic analysis of Dr. David Hoodless, principal of the Central Medical School in Fiji. Hoodless said the bones belonged to a man, ruling out the possibility that the mystery of Earhart’s disappearance had been solved.
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Until now, that is. Richard Jantz, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Tennessee, says that he has re-examined seven bone measurements that Hoodless took of the remains in 1940 — and Jantz has concluded that Hoodless was mistaken to say they definitively belonged to a man.
Researchers also used photos of Earhart and clothing measurements taken by a seamstress to estimate the size of Earhart’s bones, and then compared those bone length estimates to the measurements Hoodless took.
Taken together, the data suggest that the bones have more similarity to Earhart’s than to 99 percent of other individuals in a large reference sample, researchers said.
“Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers,” Jantz said in a statement announcing the new study, published in the journal Forensic Anthropology.
Jantz adds that forensic anthropology has jumped ahead by leaps and bounds in the decades since Hoodless analyzed the bones.
“Forensic anthropology was not well developed in the early 20th century,” Jantz writes in the paper. “There are many examples of erroneous assessments by anthropologists of the period. We can agree that Hoodless may have done as well as most analysts of the time could have done, but this does not mean his analysis was correct.”
Jantz used computer program that he co-created called Fordisc to estimate the sex, ancestry, and stature based on Hoodless’ skeletal measurements, according to the study. Researchers said nearly every certified forensic anthropologist in the world uses the program.
All Jantz had to go off of in his re-examination were Hoodless’ measurements because the actual bones have disappeared, researchers said. The new analysis relies on four measurements from the skull, and three measurements from long bones: the tibia (one of two bones in the lower leg), the humerus (the long upper arm bone) and the radius (one of two forearm bones).
Researchers said they were also able to rule out that the bones belonged to any of the 11 men who were shipwrecked off the coast of the island in 1929.
Earhart, the paper concludes, “was known to have been in the area of Nikumaroro Island, she went missing, and human remains were discovered which are entirely consistent with her and inconsistent with most other people.”
Still, the paper acknowledges that not everyone agrees: Just a few years ago, a 2015 paper argued “that Hoodless’s methods were sound and therefore his sex estimate was likely correct,” Jantz writes.
But Jantz dismisses that conclusion, writing that the “most prudent position concerning sex of the Nikumaroro bones is to consider them unknown.”