Published December 17, 2010
NORMAN, Okla. – The three bone fragments turned up on a deserted South Pacific island that lay along the course Amelia Earhart was following when she vanished. Nearby were several tantalizing artifacts: some old makeup, some glass bottles and shells that had been cut open.
Now scientists at the University of Oklahoma hope to extract DNA from the tiny bone chips in tests that could prove Earhart died as a castaway after failing in her 1937 quest to become the first woman to fly around the world.
"There's no guarantee," said Ric Gillespie, director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, a group of aviation enthusiasts in Delaware that found the pieces of bone this year while on an expedition to Nikumaroro Island, about 1,800 miles south of Hawaii.
"You only have to say you have a bone that may be human and may be linked to Earhart and people get excited. But it is true that, if they can get DNA, and if they can match it to Amelia Earhart's DNA, that's pretty good."
It could be months before scientists know for sure — and it could turn out the bones are from a turtle. The fragments were found near a hollowed-out turtle shell that might have been used to collect rain water, but there were no other turtle parts nearby.
Earhart's disappearance on July 2, 1937, remains one of the 20th century's most enduring mysteries. Did she run out of fuel and crash at sea? Did her Lockheed Electra develop engine trouble? Did she spot the island from the sky and attempt to land on a nearby reef?
"What were her last moments like? What was she doing? What happened?" asked Robin Jensen, an associate professor of communications at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who has studied Earhart's writings and speeches.
Since 1989, Gillespie's group has made 10 trips to the island, trying each time to find clues that might help determine the fate of Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan.
Last spring, volunteers working at what seemed to be an abandoned campsite found one piece of bone that appeared to be from a neck and another unknown fragment dissimilar to bird or fish bones. A third fragment might be from a finger. The largest of the pieces is just over an inch long.
The area was near a site where native work crews found skeletal remains in 1940. Bird and fish carcasses suggested Westerners had prepared meals there.
"This site tells the story of how someone or some people attempted to live as castaways," Gillespie said Friday in an interview with The Associated Press. "These fish weren't eaten like Pacific Islanders" eat fish.
Millions of dollars have been spent in failed attempts to learn what happened to Earhart, a Kansas native declared dead by a California court in early 1939.
The official version says Earhart and Noonan ran out of fuel and crashed at sea while flying from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island, which had a landing strip and fuel.
Gillespie's book "Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Disappearance," and "Amelia Earhart's Shoes," written by four volunteers from the aircraft group, suggest the pair landed on the reef and survived, perhaps for months, on scant food and rainwater.
Gillespie, a pilot, said the aviator would have needed only about 700 feet of unobstructed space to land because her plane would have been traveling only about 55 mph at touchdown.
"It looks like she could have landed successfully on the reef surrounding the island. It's very flat and smooth," Gillespie said. "At low tide, it looks like this place is surrounded by a parking lot."
However, Gillespie said, the plane, even if it landed safely, would have been slowly dragged into the sea by the tides. The waters off the reef are 1,000 to 2,000 feet deep. His group needs $3 million to $5 million for a deep-sea dive.
The island is on the course Earhart planned to follow from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island, which had a landing strip and fuel. Over the last seven decades, searches of the remote atoll have been inconclusive.
After the latest find, anthropologists who had previously worked with Gillespie's group suggested that he send the bones to the University of Oklahoma's Molecular Anthropology Laboratory, which has experience extracting genetic material from old bones. Gillespie's group also has a genetic sample from an Earhart female relative for comparison with the bones.
The lab is looking for mitochondrial DNA, which is passed along only through females, so there is no need to have a Noonan sample.
Cecil Lewis, an assistant professor of anthropology at the lab, said the university received a little more than a gram of bone fragments about two weeks ago. If researchers are able to extract DNA and link it to Earhart, a sample would be sent to another lab for verification.
"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. That's why we're trying to downplay a lot of the media attention right now," Lewis said. "For all we know, this is just a turtle bone, and a lot of people are going to be very disheartened."
Under the best circumstances, the analysis would take two weeks. If scientists have trouble with the sample, that time frame could stretch into months, Lewis said.
"Ancient DNA is incredibly unpredictable," he said.
Other material recovered this year also suggested the presence of Westerners at the isolated island site:
— Someone carried shells ashore before cutting them open and slicing out the meat. Islanders cut the meat out at sea.
— Bottles found nearby were melted on the bottom, suggesting they had been put into a fire, possibly to boil water. (A Coast Guard unit on the island during World War II would have had no need to boil water.)
— Bits of makeup were found. The group is checking to see which products Earhart endorsed and whether an inventory lists specific types of makeup carried on her final trip.
— A glass bottle with remnants of lanolin and oil, possibly hand lotion.
In 2007, the group found a piece of a pocket knife but didn't know whether it was left by the Coast Guard or castaways. This year, it found the shattered remains of the knife, suggesting someone had smashed it to extract the blades. Gillespie speculated a castaway used a blade to make a spear to stab shallow-water fish like those found at the campsite.
Following Earhart's disappearance, distress signals picked up by distant ships pointed back to the area of Nikumaroro Island, but while pilots passing over saw signs of recent habitation, the island was crossed off the list as having been searched, Gillespie said.
In 1940, a British overseer on the island recovered a partial human skeleton, a woman's shoe and an empty sextant box at what appeared to be a former campsite, littered with turtle, clamshell and bird remains.
Thinking of Earhart, the overseer sent the items to Fiji, where a British doctor decided they belonged to a stocky European or mixed-blood male, ruling out any Earhart connection.
The bones later vanished, but in 1998, Gillespie's group located the doctor's notes in London. Two other forensic specialists reviewed the doctor's bone measurements and agreed they were more "consistent with" a female of northern European descent, about Earhart's age and height.
On their own visits to the island, volunteers recovered an aluminum panel that could be from an Electra, another piece of a woman's shoe and a "cat's paw" heel dating from the 1930s; another shoe heel, possibly a man's, and an oddly cut piece of clear Plexiglas.
The sextant box might have been Noonan's. The woman's shoe and heel resemble a blucher-style oxford seen in a pre-takeoff photo of Earhart. The plastic shard is the exact thickness and curvature of an Electra's side window.
The body of evidence is intriguing, but Gillespie insists the team is "constantly agonizing over whether we are being dragged down a path that isn't right."
Associated Press Writer Kelly P. Kissel contributed to this report from Oklahoma City.