You probably know that Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly an airplane across the Atlantic Ocean. You also probably know that she was the first woman to attempt to fly her craft around the globe, but failed when she crashed somewhere over the Pacific.
It has always been assumed that her body must have been lost to the depths, but recently the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has presented the world with a new theory.
Amelia Earhart may have survived the crash of her plane only to die as a castaway on a deserted island.
Since 1998, they’ve been trying to prove that some bones recovered in 1940 on an island called Nikumaroro belong to the groundbreaking pilot.
The human remains were initially dismissed by British authorities as being male, but that assumption changed after TIGHAR recovered the original files – along with measurements – and sent them along to forensic anthropologists Karen Burns and Richard Jantz (I am so thinking the team at the Jeffersonian from Bones here, and it is awesome). After examining them, the team had this to say in a joint statement:
“The morphology of the recovered bones, insofar as we can tell by applying contemporary forensic methods to measurements taken at the time, appears consistent with a female of Earhart’s height and ethnic origin.”
Which means it’s possible that what we’ve always believed about the fate of one of history’s boldest adventurers may not be the whole truth. As Ric Gillespie, TIGHAR’s executive director, told CNN on Tuesday:
“Until we started investigating the skeleton, we found what history we knew was that Amelia Earhart died on July 2, 1937, in a plane crash. But there is an entire final chapter of Earhart’s life that people don’t know about. She spent days – maybe months – heroically struggling to survive as a castaway.”
While that may be a bit of an overstatement – the science only suggests that it could be her, after all, and since anthropologists can’t examine the bones themselves but only the notes from the initial discovery, we’ll probably never be able to definitively say it’s Earhart. Right?
Maybe not, because there’s more.
Two things, actually. First, upon comparing the forearms of the skeleton with photographs of Earhart where her bare arms were exposed, Richard Jantz and forensic imaging specialist Jeff Glickman combined forces to declare that the the skeleton’s and Earhart’s are virtually identical.
Add that to the fact that TIGHAR claims Earhart called for help upwards of 100 times between July 2-July 6, 1937 – over her plane’s radio, which would not have worked if the engine wasn’t running – and we can also assume that though she may have been forced to land before planned, she probably didn’t crash.
Gillespie explains the findings like this:
“There are historical documents that prove official airlines received radio calls for help in 1937. If we look at the press of the time – people believed she was still alive. It was only when planes were sent to fly over the islands where the distress signals were coming from and no plane was seen that the searches shifted toward the ocean…but she lived on that island for a while before she died.”
TIGHAR explains that Earhart’s plane wasn’t spotted on rescue missions because by the time they were sent out, the ocean waves would have likely dragged her plane back out to sea.
Three expeditions have been sent to Nikumaroro since TIGHAR took over the investigation in the late 1990s, to the area where the bones were found. Gillespie describes the results of those searches as follows:
“We found records of bonfires being lit in the area where the bones were found. Based on the fish bones and bird bones found in the area, Earhart survived weeks, maybe even months, on that island.”
Because the island contains no source of drinkable water, Earhart would have had no hope of surviving indefinitely without rescue.
After all, one can only survive on timely rainfall collection for so long. Since there were no other human remains found, it’s believed that Earhart’s navigator, Frederick J. Noonan, died soon after the crash and was given a burial at sea.
Earhart reported in her initial distress calls that he had been injured, presumably during the emergency landing. We don’t know whether Earhart was unharmed or not.
Gillespie adds, “We believe she survived heroically, and alone, for a period of time, in terrible circumstances. History needs to tell her story right.”
I don’t think that he needs to worry. If this isn’t a tale ripe for a Hollywood adaptation, I don’t know what is. Fingers crossed.
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