June 4, 2010
Did Amelia Earhart Die As A Castaway?
Researchers scouring a remote, uninhabited South Pacific island believed to be the final resting place of Amelia Earhart have discovered clues that the aviatrix may have struggled to survive there after an emergency landing.
Three pieces of a pocket knife and parts of what may be a broken cosmetic glass jar provide new evidence that the legendary Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan landed and ultimately died as castaways on the secluded island of Nikumaroro.
The tiny island, located in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, is roughly 300 miles southeast of Howland Island "“ the target destination of Earhart's fatal flight on July 2, 1937.
A futile, large-scale search ensued after Electra's disappearance.
"These objects have the potential to yield DNA, specifically what is known as 'touch DNA','" said Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), during an interview with Discovery News.
Gillespie and his team will be searching the island until June 14 for clues that the "Electra", Earhart's twin-engine plane, did not crash in the water and sink as many believe.
Earhart had been flying over the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to set a record by flying around the world at the equator. In her last radio transmission, the slender, tall, blonde reported that her aircraft was running low on fuel.
Gillespie said recent advances in DNA extraction from touched objects might help solve the mystery surrounding Earhart's crash.
"If DNA from the recovered objects matches the Earhart reference sample now held by the DNA lab we've been working with, we'll have what most people would consider to be conclusive evidence that Amelia Earhart spent her last days on Nikumaroro," he said.
The group uncovered a number of artifacts during previous TIGHAR excursions conducted since 1989. In conjunction with archival research, these clues provide solid circumstantial evidence for the castaway theory.
Gillespie's ongoing excavation is now centered on the remote, southeast end of the island in a densely vegetated area known as the Seven Site.
The area seems to be where British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher discovered a partial skeleton of a castaway in 1940. A forensic report describing the remains said they were likely those of a white female of northern European extraction, roughly 5 feet 7 inches tall -- a description matching Amelia Earhart.
Although the bones have been lost, parts of the skeleton not uncovered in 1940, including the ribs, spine, half of the pelvis, hands, feet, one arm, and one lower leg, may yet remain at the site.
Gillespie believes that large coconut crabs may have carried off many of the bones, indicating a tragic end for Earhart. But it's a hypothesis the researchers wanted to test.
"In 2007 we conducted a taphonomy experiment with a small pig carcass to see how quickly the crabs would eat the remains, and how far, if at all, the crabs dragged the bones. The primary answers were 'pretty quickly' and 'all over the place,'" said TIGHAR's president, Patricia Thrasher, during an interview with Discovery News.
"This trip, they went back to the site to look at the bones that were left. It's now been three years that these mammal bones have been out in the weather on Nikumaroro. If Gallagher found Amelia Earhart's bones, that's how long they would have been lying out," she said.
To be sure, the bones appeared much older than three years, in keeping with Gallagher's report of "gray, pitted, dry remains", Discovery news reported.
Gillespie placed the pig bones on the coral rubble, and they nearly disappeared.
In addition to searching the coral rubble for bones not seen by Gallagher, Gillespie and his team are investigating an area around a big Ren tree, where they identified a rough ring of fire remains that evoked many questions.
For instance, did the castaways build a ring of fire to keep the crabs at bay during the nighttime? Or was it an attempt to signal search and rescue aircraft?
Other questions arise from the discovery of the pocketknife and the glass jar pieces.
"The finds are indeed important. In the case of the knife, we found part of it in 2007 and have now found more. The artifacts tell a story of an ordinary pocket knife that was beaten apart to detach the blades for some reason," Thrasher said.
The castaways may have been attempting to construct a fishing spear, or perhaps used the blades for prying clams.
Additional questions will likely arise in the days ahead. Indeed, the researchers have just uncovered another fire feature and will soon excavate the area.
Meanwhile, other team members are exploring a strip of coral reef at the island's western end know as the Western Reef Slope.
Researchers plan to utilize a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to conduct an underwater search near the reef for the wreckage of Electra. However, the steepness of the reef slope means that any wreckage likely lies as many as 1,000 feet down, the researchers said.
Additional information on TIGHAR's expedition can be viewed at the Earhart Project's Web site at http://tighar.org/Projects/Earhart/NikuVI/Niku6dailies.html.