Forensic Scientist Claims to Have Solved the Amelia Earhart Mystery

By George Dvorsky on at

Pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937, and we’ve been wondering about her fate ever since. A re-examination of a forensic analysis performed in 1941 shows that bones found on a remote south Pacific island belonged to Earhart—a conclusion reached with a splashy 99 percent number attached to it. Sceptics, on the other hand, say the new analysis proves nothing.

To quickly recap, Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic, but she mysteriously disappeared in 1937 while flying over the Pacific with her navigator, Fred Noonan. Speculation emerged that her plane crashed into the water, or the duo became stranded on an island, but proof has been lacking.

Richard L. Jantz, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, believes Earhart became marooned, and he says he has the bones to prove it—or least, a forensic analysis of bones discovered on Nikumaroro island back in 1940. You see, these “Nikumaroro Bones,” as they’re called, no longer exist. They’re gone. Disappeared. Vanished without a trace. But before they went missing, the bones were analysed in 1941 by a physician named D. W. Hoodless, who concluded that the bones—consisting of a skull, lower jaw (with no teeth), half a pelvis, and various arm and leg bones—belonged to a short, stocky, middle-aged male, and not Amelia Earhart. [A detailed account of the discovery and examination of the Nikumaroro bones can be found in this 2016 Forbes article]

Jantz’s new Forensic Anthropology study, titled “Amelia Earhart and the Nikumaroro Bones: A 1941 Analysis versus Modern Quantitative Techniques,” is exactly that—a re-analysis and questioning of old-timey forensic techniques using the latest that forensic science has to offer.

“Forensic anthropology was not well developed in the early 20th century,” writes Jantz in his new 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.”

Among the various “modern quantitative techniques” used in the new analysis, Jantz used a software program called Fordisc, which he himself co-developed. Fordisc, which is used by forensic scientists around the world, uses “statistical methods to estimate sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements.” Jantz’s Fordisc analysis “reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99% of individuals in a large reference sample,” writes Jantz. “This strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart.”

Photos like this one, where Amelia Earhart’s right arm is fully extended, allowed Jantz to determine where certain bones were located (as indicated by black dots), which allowed him to estimate their size.

In addition to this, Jantz compared the bone lengths with what’s known about Earhart’s physical proportions. For example, the lengths of her humerus and forearm were extrapolated from old photos of the pioneering pilot, and her inseam length and waist circumference were estimated by measuring a pair of Earhart’s trousers kept at Perdue University.

“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,” concluded Jantz in the study. “Until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.”

It is not enough, he says, to say the bones belonged to a a stocky male without specifying who that stocky male might have been. “This presents us with an untestable hypothesis, not to mention uncritically setting aside the prior information of Earhart’s presence,” he writes. That “prior information” includes a piece of shoe found near the remains, along with an empty sextant box and a Benedictine bottle, both of which could have been included in Earhart’s supplies.

“I worked with Dr. Jantz for three years helping him assemble the data for his study, so I’m not surprised at the results—although the 99 percent certainty that the castaway was Amelia was a pleasant surprise,” Ric Gillespie, Executive Director of TIGHAR, told Gizmodo. He says this study is the “icing on the cake” his team has been baking for the past 30 years. Gillespie and his colleagues have been scouring Nikumaroro island in search of evidence that could finally prove that Earhart was marooned there. “Multiple lines of scientific evidence—radio propagation analysis, forensic imaging of historical photos, forgotten archival documents, archaeological discoveries, all point to the same conclusion,” he said.

Kristina Killgrove, a biological anthropologist, is not so sure about the new interpretation.

“Based on the data available, Jantz notes that he cannot exclude Earhart as being a match for the Nikumaroro bone measurement data,” she told Gizmodo. “This does not, of course, mean that those bones are hers, although he appears to be convinced they are based on statistics.”

The new study does not settle the mystery, says Killgrove, because no one knows where the actual bones are. She points to this revealing passage in Jantz’s new study:

If the skeleton were available, it would presumably be a relatively straightforward task to make a positive identification, or a definitive exclusion. Unfortunately, all we have are the meager data in Hoodless’s report and a premortem record gleaned from photographs and clothing. From the information available, we can at least provide an assessment of how well the bones fit what we can reconstruct of Amelia Earhart. Because the reconstructions are now quantitative, probabilities can also be estimated.

Without an available skeleton, argues Killgrove, the mystery will never be solved.

“What I would like people to know about this study is that it does not confirm the remains are hers—and that in fact there are no remains anymore,” she told Gizmodo. “Jantz has determined statistically that the best explanation for the measurement data is that they fit Earhart. But he also notes in the conclusion that it is impossible to test any other hypothesis. So the hypothesis that the bones are Earhart’s cannot be rejected—but there are also no alternative hypotheses that can be tested.”

Indeed, much of Jantz’s analysis sounds circumstantial, and without access to the Nikumaroro bones we can’t ever be 100 percent certain they belonged to Earhart. What’s more, Jantz’s analysis is heavily dependant on Hoodless’ “meagre” data—which Jantz used to undermine Hoodless’s assessment and bolster his own theory. Sure, the bones may belong to Earhart, but the mystery is far from solved. [Forensic Anthropology]