Amelia Earhart’s Lost Skeleton?

In 1940, a work party unearthed a partial skeleton on the island of Nikumaroro. Several months later, British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher learned about the skeleton and radioed his superiors that it was “just possibly that of Amelia Earhart.” Did this skeleton really belong to the famed aviatrix?

Amelia Earhart’s Mysterious Disappearance?

We first looked at Amelia Earhart’s famous disappearance back in July 2011. Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1936, she decided to attempt a 29,000 mile circumnavigational flight around the Earth.

With Fred Noonan as her navigator, she left California on May 21, 1937. Thirty-eight days and 22,000 miles later, she landed in Lae, New Guinea. On July 2, Earhart and Noonan took off from Lae in her Lockheed Electra 10E, heading for Howland Island. Hours later, they vanished, never to be seen again.

For more than two decades, the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery(TIGHAR – pronounced “tiger”) has searched for answers to this mystery. They believe Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan landed on a reef off Nikumaroro’s west end and safely evacuated the aircraft. A few days later, rising tides swept the airplane over the reef edge. Although they’ve uncovered some circumstantial evidence that might support their case, they have yet to find definitive proof for their theory. Now, TIGHAR is on route to Nikumaroro. They hope to test the hypothesis that large pieces of wreckage survived the crash and subsequently sank into the extremely deep waters off the reef slope.

The Lost Skeleton…of Amelia Earhart?

British Colonial Service Officer Gerald Gallagher was the first officer-in-charge of the so-called Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, which was the British Empire’s last real attempt at colonial expansion. In early September 1940, he moved to Nikumaroro in order to establish it as the centre of the new colony.

During his first month, a native work party told Gallagher about a skull they’d discovered on the island. He checked it out and found a number of bones along with some other items. On September 23, 1941, he sent a telegram to the Acting Administrative Officer in Tarawa, David Wernham.

“Please obtain from Koata (Native Magistrate Gardner on way to Central Hospital) a certain bottle alleged to have been found near skull discovered on Gardner Island. Grateful you retain bottle in safe place for present and ask Koata not to talk about skull which is just possibly that of Amelia Earhardt. [sic]” ~ Gerald Gallagher, September 23, 1941

Later that day, Gallagher sent a second telegram to Jack Barley, Resident Commissioner, Ocean Island.

“Some months ago working party on Gardner discovered human skull – this was buried and I only recently heard about it. Thorough search has now produced more bones (including lower jaw) part of a shoe a bottle and a sextant box. It would appear that

(a) Skeleton is possibly that of a woman,

(b) Shoe was a womans and probably size 10,

(c) Sextant box has two numbers on it 3500 (stenciled) and 1542– sextant being old fashioned and probably painted over with black enamel.

Bones look more than four years old to me but there seems to be very slight chance that this may be remains of Amelia Earhardt. If United States authorities find that above evidence fits into general description, perhaps they could supply some dental information as many teeth are intact. Am holding latest finds for present but have not exhumed skull. There is no local indication that this discovery is related to wreck of the ‘Norwich City’.” ~ Gerald Gallagher, September 23, 1941

Gallagher was instructed to keep the situation “strictly secret.” He proceeded to provide more information. For instance, he described the shoe  as “a stoutish walking shoe or heavy sandal.” And he reported the “remains of fire, turtle, and dead birds” near the skeleton.

Eventually, Gallagher sent the bones to Fiji. They were intercepted by Dr. Lindsay Isaac who proceeded to conduct what appears to be an unauthorized examination. Dr. Isaac eventually concluded the bones belonged to an elderly Polynesian male and sent them on to Fiji.

Dr. D.W. Hoodless (who apparently possessed no forensic training) examined the remains and ultimately determined they came from a male measuring 5 feet, five and one-half inches. These bones have since disappeared. However, Dr. Hoodless’s notes, measurements, and observations survived.

The 1997 Examination

In 1997, a group of forensic anthropologists conducted a reexamination of sorts, using Dr. Hoodless’s notes as well as modern forensic techniques.

“Based on the information now in hand, Jantz and Burns both concluded that the remains found on Nikumaroro in 1939-40 represented an individual who was:

  • More likely female than male
  • More likely white than Polynesian or other Pacific Islander
  • Most likely between 5′5″ and 5′9″ in height”

Source: Amelia Earhart’s Bones and Shoes?, Karen Ramey Burns, Ph.D., Richard L. Jantz, Ph.D., Thomas F. King, Ph.D., and Richard E. Gillespie

In other words, the bones appeared consistent with Amelia Earhart’s sex, ethnic origin, and height. However, the researchers noted there was no way to be certain without the actual bones.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Although TIGHAR has produced an interesting circumstantial case that Amelia crashed on Nikumaroro, it’s far from conclusive. One way of proving it would be to locate the actual bones from 1940. Another possibility is to locate the missing pieces of the skeleton that were never found. Unfortunately, this could prove impossible due to the presence of large coconut crabs on the island.

“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 President

As we mentioned earlier, TIGHAR is currently planning to comb Nikumaroro’s underwater reef slope for Amelia’s plane. Hopefully, this will produce results. If not, TIGHAR’s best bet might be to locate the bones examined by Dr. Hoodless. But do they still exist? It seems possible. After all, the papers revealing the existence of the bones weren’t found until 1997. Who knows? These mysterious bones might still be out there somewhere, waiting for another chance at discovery.


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