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Items hint at Earhart’s final struggle

Researchers scouring a remote South Pacific island describe a knife, a jar and signs of a fire that the famous female pilot may have used to try and survive.
Image: Amelia Earhart
Aviator Amelia Earhart is seen in this photo exiting her aircraft at Derry, Ireland, after her solo transatlantic flight in 1932.FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Tantalizing new clues are surfacing in the Amelia Earhart mystery, according to researchers scouring a remote South Pacific island believed to be the final resting place of the legendary aviatrix.

Three pieces of a pocket knife and fragments of what might be a broken cosmetic glass jar are adding new evidence that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan landed and eventually died as castaways on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited tropical island in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati. The island was some 300 miles southeast of their target destination, Howland Island.

"These objects have the potential to yield DNA, specifically what is known as 'touch DNA,'" Ric Gillespie, executive director of The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR), told Discovery News in an email interview from Nikumaroro.

Gillespie and his team will be searching the tiny island until June 14 for evidence that Earhart's twin-engine plane, the Electra, did not crash in the ocean and sink, as it was assumed after the futile massive search that followed the aviatrix's disappearance on July 2, 1937.

Tall, slender, blonde and brave, Earhart was flying over the Pacific Ocean in a record attempt to fly around the world at the equator. In her final radio transmission Earhart reported that her aircraft was running low on fuel.

According to Gillespie, recent advances in the ability to extract DNA from touched objects might help solve the enduring aviation mystery.

"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," Gillespie said.

The expedition marks TIGHAR's tenth visit to Nikumaroro since 1989. During the previous campaigns, the group uncovered a number of artifacts which, combined with archival research, provide strong circumstantial evidence for a castaway presence.

The ongoing excavation is now focusing on the island's remote southeast end, in an area called the Seven Site. Densely vegetated in shrubs known as Scaevola frutescens, the site appears to be where the partial skeleton of a castaway was found in 1940.

Recovered by British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher, the human remains were described in a forensic report and attributed to a white female of northern European extraction, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, a stature consistent with that of Amelia Earhart. Unfortunately the bones have been lost.

Gillespie believes that many of the bones might have been carried off by giant coconut crabs, suggesting an unmerciful end for Earhart. However, parts of the skeleton not found in 1940 (the spine, ribs, half of the pelvis, hands and feet, one arm, and one lower leg) may still remain at the site, scattered in the bush.

Test conducted with pig carcass
The researchers have just carried out an experiment to test the hypothesis.

"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,'" Patricia Thrasher, TIGHAR's president, told 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," Thrasher said.

Indeed, the bones looked much older than three years, in accordance with Gallagher's report of gray, pitted, dry remains.

Gillespie dropped the pig bones on the coral rubble, and they virtually disappeared, to the point that it took some searching to find them again some 10 minutes later.

A ring of fire?
Apart from searching the coral rubble for bones not seen by Gallangher, the team is investigating an area around a big Ren tree. There, they spotted a rough ring of fire remains which prompted several questions.

Did the castaway construct a ring of fire to keep the crabs away at night? Was it an attempt to signal search aircraft?

Other questions come from the pocket knife and the glass jar fragments. Perhaps a cosmetic jar, the small container features some sort of embossing on the base, either letters or numbers now unreadable because of the dirt.

"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.

Was the castaway trying to make a fishing spear? Were the blades used for prying clams?

More questions are likely to come up in the next days. The researchers have just found another fire feature and are about to excavate the area, while other members of the team are exploring the Western Reef Slope, a strip of coral reef at the island's western end.

Using a remotely operated vehicle, they plan to carry out an underwater search for the wreckage of Earhart's Electra.

According to the researchers, the steep nature of the reef slope makes it likely that any wreckage lies perhaps as far as 1,000 feet down.

Click here for more background on TIGHAR's expedition to Nikumaroro.