Bettmann / CORBIS
This is one of the last photographs made in Los Angeles of Amelia Earhart with her navigator Fred Noonan as they completed preparations for their ill-fated flight.
updated 3/2/2011 4:51:38 PM ET 2011-03-02T21:51:38

Scientific investigations have revealed that human DNA may be present in fragments of material that could provide crucial information about the fate of Amelia Earhart, the legendary pilot who disappeared 74 years ago while flying over the Pacific Ocean in a record attempt to circle the world at the equator.

Collected on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited, waterless tropical island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati where Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan might have made an emergency landing, the material consisted of a tiny bone fragment and clumps of material resembling soil or feces.

While human mitochondrial DNA was recovered from the clumps, tests on the bone fragment were less conclusive.

"There does appear to be ancient DNA present in the bones and material we collected but it's in very bad condition," Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), which has long been investigating the Earhart mystery, told Discovery News.

TIGHAR's investigations and theories challenge the assumption that Earhart's twin-engined Lockheed "Electra" crashed in the ocean when running out of fuel on July 2, 1937.

"A large and growing body of circumstantial evidence suggests that Earhart and her navigator landed and lived for a time as castaways only to eventually perish on the atoll," Gillespie said.

Discovered last June with several other artifacts during a month-long expedition, the bone fragment's features led forensic anthropologist Karen Burns to wonder if it might be part of a human finger.

Indeed, it was found at a site on the atoll where the partial skeleton of a castaway was discovered in 1940.

Recovered by British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher, the partial skeleton was described in a forensic report and attributed to an individual "more likely female than male," "more likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander," "most likely between 5 feet 5 inches and 5 feet 9 inches in height."

Unfortunately the bones have been lost.

"No hand bones were found in 1940, so the presence of a surviving human finger bone seems plausible," Gillespie said.

Structurally finger-like, the bone fragment was initially attributed to a turtle. It was only when archaeologist Tom King catalogued the turtle bones found at the site that questions began to arise.

"All turtle bones were associated with the shell. No limb bones were identified. If whoever brought the turtle to the site didn't bring the legs, how did a phalanx-like bone get there?" said Gillespie.

In an attempt to solve the mystery, the bone fragment was sent to the Molecular Anthropology Laboratories at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla.

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Initial tests for the presence of human mitochondrial DNA in the bone fragment were positive, but subsequent testing was unable to replicate the results.

According to Cecil M. Lewis, who carried out the DNA tests, this suggests that either the initial detection of human DNA was attributed to a sporadic DNA contamination event, or there was human DNA in the extract, but it was too little, or of too poor quality for a consistent analysis.

Another possibility is that the DNA in the bone was non-human.

More general tests for animal DNA, human and non-human, provided "no positive results," suggesting three possibilities: there was no animal DNA in the bone; there was animal DNA, but it was too little or of too poor of quality to reliably analyze; or the real time Polymerase Chain Reaction method used to detect the DNA was ineffective for targeting the particular animal.

"For now, the question of whether the bone is human must remain unanswered," Lewis concluded.

The researchers decided to preserve a tiny fragment of the bone, hoping to use it in the future as less destructive, and more sensitive genomic methods develop.

Analysis of clumps of a substance recovered from the same site yielded more promising results.

Archaeologically, the clumps are anomalous in the context of the site. Examined by University of Maine anthropologist Kristin Sobolik, the mass was found to possess some fecal properties.

The material has been analyzed by the Molecular Anthropology Laboratories at Oklahoma University. There, Lewis' team was able to extract human mitochondrial DNA.

"DNA from two individuals was detected but to date, the amount extracted is not sufficient for comparison to Earhart reference samples," Gillespie said.

According to Lewis, the most common explanation for multiple sequences is either the sample is associated with a temporary latrine used by more than one person, or the retrieved data still includes modern human contamination.

"We will continue to explore how well these explanations fit the data by further molecular testing," Lewis said.

In addition to the bacteria and human DNA analyses, future analysis will include targets for plants and animals.

According to Lewis, the presence of certain plant and animal DNA would be a further indication that the clumps are fecal matter and could provide information about the diet and general health of the individual.

More from Discovery News:

FULL COVERAGE: Amelia Earhart as Castaway

SLIDE SHOW: Clues Point to Amelia Earhart as Castaway

© 2012 Discovery Channel

Explainer: Seven deep mysteries of history

  • Image: Amelia Earhart
    FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    What happened to Amelia Earhart?

    Amelia Earhart raised the spirits of Depression-era America as she soared into the aviation record books with feats of altitude, distance and endurance. The mood took a gloomy turn, however, when she and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during a much-heralded attempt to fly around the world. Their fate remains one of aviation's greatest unsolved mysteries.

    Theories abound: They ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. They were captured by the Japanese and executed. They survived, and Earhart lived out her life as a housewife in New Jersey.

    A prominent theory with tantalizing clues holds that they survived the crash landing and but perished as castaways on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the republic of Kiribati. An expedition to the island in 2010 recovered pieces of a pocket knife and a glass jar that may have belonged to the castaways. If DNA analyses on these and other items match Earhart's, the mystery may finally be resolved.

    Click ahead for six more stories of historical mysteries.

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    Image: Kathleen Martinez, director of a Dominican-Egyptian archeological mission
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    Excavations underway at a temple near Alexandria, Egypt, may reveal the final resting place of the doomed lovers Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The Egyptian queen and Roman general committed suicide in 30 B.C. following their defeat in the battle of Actium for control of the Roman Empire. But where the lovers were buried is unknown.

    Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist, believes the lovers were put to rest in the temple of Taposiris Magna and launched a dig with a Dominican-led team to locate the tomb. "It my opinion, if this tomb is found, it will be one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century because of the love between Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and because of the sad story of their death," he told reporters during a tour of the temple.

    Dominican archaeologist Kathleen Martinez is shown here with an alabaster bust of Cleopatra that was found at the excavation site near Alexandria.

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    Genghis Khan united warring tribes in 1206 and became the leader of the Mongols, creating an empire that eventually stretched from China to Hungary. The famed warrior's tomb, however, has remained a mystery ever since his death in 1227.

    According to legend, his burial party killed anyone who saw the procession. The slaves and soldiers who attended the funeral were also killed. Horses then trampled evidence of the burial, and a river was diverted to flow over the grave, which is thought to lie somewhere near Genghis Khan's birthplace in Khentii Aimag.

    Expeditions to locate the tomb have been aborted due to concerns that the excavations would disturb the site and destroy the soul that serves as its protector. In 2004, archaeologists uncovered Genghis Khan's palace, shown here, and they suspect the tomb lies nearby.

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    The legend is a harrowing tale of survival: A group of pioneers headed for California in 1846 got stuck on a mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada and resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter. But the claims that they feasted on human flesh may have been exaggerated, based on an analysis of bones found in a hearth along Alder Creek, where at least some of the Donner Party passed the time.

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    Donner Party survivors James Reed and his wife Margaret Reed are shown in this photo from the 1850s.

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    Image: William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, circa 1880.
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    Legend holds that outlaw Billy the Kid was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881 and buried in Fort Sumner, N.M. A headstone marks his grave, but a controversy has roiled since the 1930s when an Arizona man named John Miller claimed that he was the legendary outlaw. Garrett, he said, shot the wrong man and lied about it. Matters became even more confused a few decades later when a Texan named "Brushy" Bill Roberts came forth and said he was the real Billy the Kid.

    An investigation aims to resolve the case by exhuming the body of Billy the Kid's mother and comparing her mitochondrial DNA to genetic material from the three men. But the investigation is controversial on several fronts. For one, the graves have been moved over the decades and nobody is certain the bodies and headstones match up. In addition, if the real Billy the Kid turns out to be buried in Texas or Arizona, it would kill off a legend that helps draw tourists to the New Mexico gravesite.

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    The Dominican Republic, however, says Columbus' remains never left Hispanola. In 1877, a box was uncovered in a Santo Domingo cathedral with an inscription identifying the remains as belonging to the "illustrious and distinguished male Cristobal Colon (Spanish for Christopher Columbus)."

    DNA analysis of bone fragments from the Seville remains and those of Columbus' brother Diego, also buried in the city, are a perfect match. When researchers announced those findings in 2006, they declared that the century-old dispute was resolved. But DNA from the Dominican remains has yet to be studied, leaving the case not quite fully shut.

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    Bolsheviks gunned down Russian Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their five children in 1918, but for 90 years the whereabouts of two of the children, Prince Alexei (heir to the Russian throne) and a daughter (Maria or Anastasia), remained unknown until 2008. That's when their bones were recovered from a grave near the rest of the Romanov family near Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, about 900 miles east of Moscow.

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    Czar Nicholas II, left, and the Crown Prince Alexei, are shown cutting wood in this photo, taken at a Siberian prison months before their murder in 1918.


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